Leaving Brasov bright and early, I hopped on a train to the big bad dirty city that is Bucharest and by 1pm I was bundled onto a battered old train stamped with cyrillic in a compartment shared with a Bulgarian man who looked about a hundred, a Japanese backpacker, and a friendly Transylvanian-Hungarian girl who was doing her best to explain to our elderly compartment-mate that she couldn’t understand a word he was saying.
Some time down the rails, the old fellow fell asleep and I fell to talking with the Transylvanian girl. She was a lovely, friendly girl, a student of computer science and information systems, and from the sounds of things an intrepid traveler herself. She has studied abroad in Hungary and now Bulgaria and is currently applying to study in Toulouse. We chatted most of the way to the border in that sweltering, air-conditioning-less compartment, until our old Bulgarian friend awoke and began to try to talk to us. No matter how we tried to explain that we didn’t understand, he was determined to talk.
He was delighted by my laptop, asked me to use his camera to take a picture of the information stamp on the side of a tanker train, and chattered endlessly about who only knows what. I caught something about the history of the Habsburgs and Austria and a lot about ‘roboto’s which, if my recollection of etymology is correct, translates to something about workers in most Slavic languages. So it is possible that we were hearing the history of the workers in Europe? It certainly seemed like he had something to say about every little town we passed through and I feel worryingly certain that my ignorance of Bulgarian prevented me hearing a very fascinating life story or world history and I’ve not the faintest which.
As we crossed the border, so to did we cross my now familiar companion, the Danube. From its two channeled breadth at Vienna to its languorous curve through Budapest, I had grown used to the Danube’s serene greeny-blue. I was utterly unprepared for its sudden expansion at Ruse. From a lazy width through cities, the Danube had grown broader, I think, than Dublin Bay but still with that ever so slightly milky greenish blue tone.
Across the Danube via the friendship bridge, we soon pulled into the station at Ruse where both of my conversational compartment companions left me with only the silent Japanese backpackers and only bench worth of seats for each of us. Needless to say, we were soon both passed out on our respective couches rattling on through the Bulgarian countryside.
Somewhere around 10pm it became obvious that we were not going to reach Sofia on time. It was around then, as people began to get antsy, that an old fellow began strolling through the train requesting “cigarotchka”. I do so love the Slavic diminutives.
Forty minutes after we were meant to arrive, we finally rolled into Sofia and I took flight. In theory, check in at my hostel ended at 11pm. I hit the ground running at precisely that time and reached the hostel some 15 minutes later. It was a bit of an exciting ramble through the darkened city, but fortunately when I finally arrived, the owner was still up and about and willing to get me checked in. He was a curious old fellow with the distinct flavour of a dead head from his slightly dreaded long grey hair to his battered flip flops and stoned expression. The hostel was also a bit of a curious place with the large dorm located in the building’s attic with mattresses on packing pallets and lines for laundry doubling as hangers for curtains for those who wanted to seclude their beds better by sacrifice of a sheet or two.
The following morning my breakfast was enlivened by a chat about everything Irish with a young Polish fellow who was studying in Belfast. While we burbled on about our favourite bits of Ireland, we soon found ourselves in the presence of the wraith of an American. He held it together admirably but after manfully making his way through a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal, he slunk away to the dorm where he appeared to remain for the rest of the day.
Having met some of my bunkmates and fed myself adequately, I set out to explore Sofia. Within 10 minutes any doubts I’d had about finding things to entertain me were entirely dismissed. Sofia is a veritable layer cake of history.
In the middle of the main street before the old communist headquarters there is an ancient little rotunda church and in the metro station nearby I found myself stumbling over ruined Roman houses and walls guarded from the commuters by only a short glass and aluminium barrier. It’s not the best preservation tactic, but it’s nice to see the history on display in everyday life.
On top of all the wonderful history, the weather was stunning. It was the first time I’d been properly warm since Berlin! Moving along to the Central Market Hall, I found a building that from the outside looked like all the other market halls I’d visited but then I stepped inside and it was entirely unlike any of them. The design was modern and the stalls were tidy venues for the sale of belts, clothing, jewellery, and other things much more like what you would find in a shopping mall than a kitschy market.
As I strolled along, I passed a synagogue and slowly worked my way through my dislike of pedestrian subways. They may be disorienting but they are far safer than dodging through Bulgarian traffic.
I stopped by the Saint Nedelya Cathedral whose roof was once blown in in an attempt to kill important political and military personnel attending the funeral of an assassinated general. Nowadays it’s large and domed with a massive gold altarpiece, saints painted on every surface of the walls and ceilings, and a firm ban on photography. I have no affinity for the Orthodox faith but I do enjoy watching all the fascinations of the faith including the migratory prayers that carry the faithful around the church from icon to icon, kissing pictures and dedicating their prayers passionately to their chosen saints and manifestations of god.
I passed another small orthodox church in the basement of some administrative building with only the furniture and fixtures of an older original before making my way to the main pedestrian street. There I found cafes, bakeries (SO MANY SWEET THINGS!), shops, and a mime on a bicycle who seemed to follow me all through the centre. At the end of the walking street, I found myself in the park which holds the National Palace of Culture. The park is, at this point, more construction site than community space and features another wonderfully controversial monument. This one is not so much controversial in and of itself, instead, the controversy revolves around what it has replaced. According to the explanation tied to the fence, every city in Bulgaria has a memorial to the soldiers that have died in the wars since the beginning of the 20th century. Every city but Sofia that is. In Sofia, the memorial was torn down by the communists and replaced with a rather curious modern creation that still stands there today. As the government refuses to reinstate the war memorial, the citizens have created and posted their own memorial in the form of large posters listing the names of every soldier from Sofia that has died in combat since 1900. There is always a way.
Passing further into the park I spotted a fountain that was rather reminiscent of the Oslo Opera House in its design before eventually reaching the behemoth palace of culture. I’m really not a big fan of massive monolithic communist architecture, but I guess Cyrillic lettering can be nice? Either way, I quickly moved on to other things including a pedestrian bridge adorned with posters featuring award winning photos from 2005, and the large city park beyond. The park had an impressive graffiti wall and a horse pasture but beyond that it was mostly forest. After a short wander, I turned back towards town and came across the groomed area of the park with benches, lawns, and a pond full to the brim with water lilies.
Just on the other side of the safety fencing encircling the pond stood a little boy, probably about five or six years old fascinated by the pond. He wasn’t running or playing, just occasionally moving a little to the left or to the right before resuming his scrutiny of the lilypads. After a few minutes of watching him watch, I spotted a park warden some distance away. He was tall and thin with shoulder length and slightly curling grey hair and he was making his way gradually towards the pond. When he reached our little friend with an eye for water flora, he leaned over and began a soft conversation with the little boy. Unable to understand Bulgarian I’m not sure exactly what was said but it appeared that they began with a discussion about how interesting the pond was and by degrees made their way to a conversation about how the littler conversant perhaps oughtn’t to be on the water side of the safety fence. Within a few minutes, the little man was extracted and the park warden was back on the trail of his gentle surveillance. It seemed to be effective as the boy continued his observations from the safe side of the fence as long as I remained there reading.
Once I’d returned to a sensible core temperature and heatstroke seemed rather less likely, I drifted out of the park past the Monument to the Red Army. Rather delightfully, the front of the plaza which hosts the monument has now been reclaimed as a skate/BMX park and the buildings directly to the right of the thing now find them rimed with the Americanized neon frost of Johnnie Walker and McDonalds advertisements. I suppose the Red Army has rather lost its relevance of late.
Just beyond the parks and plazas, I found the university and the national library. From the outside, both are terribly large and grand while the interiors of both at first glance seem rather bland and mid-century modern. The library is less battered than the university, but as far as I could see (having been advised of my limited exploratory range by the young security man) it seems to lack any splash of excitement or grandeur. The university on the other hand, after a bit of aimless wandering amongst walls of peeling paint and dated detailing, yielded up an almost holy conference hall. Replete with stained glass windows, curving marble staircases, tiled floors, and all manner of ornament. Even without the assistance of any artificial light, the “Conference Hall” of the University of Sofia reads more as a church or a palace than a place for educational endeavours. I am entirely okay with that.
My adventure continued via the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral which is absolutely as grand as it is possible for a thing to be. The top is all moguls of patina’d and gold leafed domes rising out of a great stone structure seated all by itself in the centre of a field of cobbles and concrete. As you get closer, gold and glass mosaics pick their way out of the carved detailing and then you step inside. The domes are high and lofty, but the saints on the walls and ceiling are rather battered and dark. Even lit by massive chandeliers, the scene lacks that lovely lightness of being that I like so well in brighter places of worship, but I guess it is Orthodox and they aren’t big on brightness.
Across the asphalt from the Cathedral, I found a little brick edifice much more to my liking: St Sofia Church. It’s humble red brick exterior looks more like a civic building than a church, but inside the bricked domes and large arched windows lend a lightness that I couldn’t help but love. And then, as if that weren’t enough, in the basement of the church, I found a wonderful little museum revealing the tombs, mosaics, and walls of two previous layers of churches which lay beneath the foundations of the current church which was originally built in the 6th century. Literally, layers of history! Though I shudder to think of the damage being inflicted by the damp as evidenced in the musty air and the condensation coated glass cases.
After my churches, I crossed a park to a former palace which now holds an art gallery and very soon found my stomach protesting obnoxiously at its lack of food. Drifting down a tramway I spotted a cute little cafe where I sat at a sidewalk table and ate chocolate cake alongside an espresso (let it be known that if you order a coffee in Bulgaria, you will be given an espresso. Drip coffee is not a thing there.) The cake was tasty enough but I cannot deny that in my state of starvation, only the foulest food would have failed to please me.
When my blood sugar recovered, I set off back to the hostel along the tramline past a rather large book market. Banana boxes and table tops crammed with books were packed snugly together all up the sidewalk for several blocks. If they’d had any that weren’t in Bulgarian, I’m not sure I’d’ve managed to escape without a volume or two.
Back at the hostel I planted myself in the common room where I was soon chatting away with the formerly hungover American while he stitched away at a leather purse for his girlfriend. A jazz pianist and writer who was raised in a doomsday cult and, as a young man, moved from New York to Montreal by bicycle with $400 and 40 days of food bought with food stamps. I am endlessly amazed by the complexity and courage in the lives of the people I meet and this American fellow was certainly one of the most fascinating.
Sometime later, I joined forces with two American girls on a vacation from their geology program in Italy to find the salsa. Apparently it was not a very popular event. Even two hours after it began, the party was still populated only by the DJ and one man. We decided to save our lev and try again another night.
My second Bulgarian morning promised to be just as hot at the first so I set out for the bus to Plovdiv, which is, I am told one of the five longest continually settled cities in the world.
Sadly, the hostel breakfast was not ready in time for my departure so instead I stopped at a little bakery where I discovered that Bulgarian pastries come in two varieties: filo with farmer’s cheese or bread with farmers cheese. They come in a frantic variety of shapes and conformations, but I certainly couldn’t spot any of any composition other than carbohydrate and cheese. Needless to say, they were delicious. At the bus station I found more of Eastern Europe’s ubiquitous automatic coffee machines and a heat haze growing in the hills even by 9:30am.
Flying down the highway at 140km/h, we passed forested hills and valleys and fields populated by sheep and actual active human shepherds. I did not know that shepherding was still a career option, but I suppose in Bulgaria it must be.
From the Plovdiv bus station, I headed straight for the old town via the old Roman Forum which at this point is just a public square rather than any sort of historic monument. Some few metres further along, however, I came upon the remains of the old Roman Odeon. There seemed to have been some sort of half-baked restoration attempt which left small wood and aluminum bleachers where there apparently used to be seating for political debates. At present the entire area is fenced off but I suppose the original aim was to, in true Bulgarian fashion, make the most of a full integration of ancient history into modern life. Shame, it didn’t quite seem to work out there.
Carrying on along the pedestrian street I came across the partially revealed Roman Stadium which was a marvel of smooth marble seats and brick paving. I explored the track drainage system and paced about on the very ground that once supported the racing hooves and wheels of Roman chariots. It’s very nearly outside of the realm of my imagination, to stand where scenes like those out of Ben Hur once took place? My wee Canadian worldview struggles to comprehend.
On my way to the Old Amphitheatre, I passed several churches including one with a beautiful blue and white marble interior. It was the least dark, most pastel orthodox church I have ever seen, and I wasn’t allowed to take a single picture. It seemed somehow tragic, but you’ll have to take my word for it. It was much better than the old dark orthodox church next door with only a pastel belfry on the outside and all heavy darkness indoors.
At the amphitheatre I was blown away by another massive marble glory still very much in use. In fact, while I was there, a miscellaneous crew of folks were setting up amps, lights, and speakers for what I can only assume was a fairly large concert. The old marble seats were all topped with little vinyl wrapped foam cushions and the sound engineer’s booth was situated right over the old (and still employed) entrance tunnel. It was ever so large and old and once again completely beyond my ken. How can something so old be anything other than carefully preserved under glass? But I suppose if your entire country is built upon ancient ruins, it hardly makes sense to put the entire republic under glass.
I continued on over rough stone paved streets up hills and down laneways passing old city walls and towers, ancient stone gates, and all manner of protected buildings dating back through ottoman times to antiquity. At the end of all my wandering, I found myself atop one of Plovdiv’s three hills in the ruins of an ancient Roman hill fort built on the ruins of an even more ancient hill fort. It’s one thing to see abandoned viking burial sites, it’s entirely another to be walking down streets and over hill tops that bear the scars and the stories of civilizations from the Romans to the Ottomans in a continuous march of human lives that traces its way all the way up to today. And all through my stroll into the past, I was accompanied by a myriad cats. I wonder if they’ve been there as long as the ruins?
After admiring the stones and the views, I headed back down into the old town where I found the church of St. Nedelya. It was quite pretty but seemed to be stuck in the midst of a halted renovation project which left supplies and scaffolding strewn all about the church. My next stop was the winding lanes of the local artistic hipster district where I faced the difficult choice of which adorable cafe to set into and beg for coffee and cake. I ended up settling on a cute little pink and white number staffed by three women and a young boy who I presume was one of their sons. Again, my request for coffee turned up an espresso and my survey of the cake cabinet ended with a slice of chocolate covered, layered lemon and chocolate mousse cake. Just in the edge of a shady patch on the pedestrian street, I sat at my white cast iron filigree table and read in blissful, warm but breezy, peace.
Refreshed by my break I dove back into art and history via the St Marina Church. The simple white and blue porticoed exterior hides a intricately and exhaustively painted interior in all the richest shades of burgundy and teal, and a shiny gleam of gold paint over everything. I also noticed that a shockingly large number of the icons feature silver hands. I can’t figure out exactly why but it definitely seems purposeful.
Crossing out of the old town towards more churches, I came across a little museum in a pedestrian underpass. It contained the preserved floor of an old Roman residence. Now one might expect the most interesting thing to be the layout or the size or shape but no, the most interesting thing and in fact the very raison d’être for the exhibition were the mosaic covered floors of the house. Every inch of floor had been decorated with brightly coloured and carefully placed stone fragments in herbal, human, and abstract designs. I have no words to describe it but I cycled through the museum twice, staring in speechless awe at the beauty of someone’s home. In the museum I also discovered that the paving of the pedestrian underpass was, in fact, the original paving of the old Roman street that ran along outside that beautiful house.
Fifteen minutes after leaving the museum I was standing in front of another little museum, this time a museum built over the ruins of an early Christian basilica. A quick peek in side suggested that it would probably be a blend of what I’d seen in the previous museum and what I’d explored in the St. Sofia church in Sofia, so I saved my pennies for something a little more novel.
And then I was off to the park to enjoy a bit more sun. I stopped by one of my beloved public water fountains to fill my bottle and then headed to the mark on my map that said “Singing Fountain”. There was a fountain and there was music but they didn’t seem at all coordinated and the music was bad 80s rock that I would have only barely called “singing”. The fountain was also policed by a warden of a very different stripe from the one i’d seen in Sofia. Whenever anyone got within a metre of the water, this assiduous fellow would let out a few fierce blasts on his whistle followed by aggressive gesturing for the offender to get away from the water. Having found a delicious little bit of shade, I sat and I read as long as I could bear the auditory assault and then I moseyed on to the city library—my last stop before the bus station.
As I entered the main doors of the imposing, blocky, white library, I came face to face with the aged security guard who sat before the doors to the library proper. I tip toed over and attempted English “Hi, can I just go have a little look around?” and was met with “Deutsch?” So I tossed together a clumsy German sentence or three and was informed that I could certainly go have a look around but I was only to visit the main card catalogue room and the 2nd story main reading rooms. There, there, and there (he pointed) were all verboten.
So I took my temporary reader’s card and headed in. The card catalogue was massive and still very much in use (by a pair of teenagers while I was there). The collection itself seemed to be shelved without cutters on the spines but instead between tabs spaced out every about 6 inches that presumably indicated what books lay between them in their cyrillic inscriptions. The collection also included boxes of prints of all the world’s most important pieces of art which appeared to be available for browsing and reference. All in all the place was fairly run down and the collection had definitely seen better days but I liked the idea of the prints collection and was delighted to see young people not only in a library but engaging with it through a prohibitively tedious browsing system—the card catalogue.
As I went to leave, I found the original guard joined by a friend who spoke a bit of French. So we had a three way conversation in two languages which no one present spoke natively (or even fluently). It was actually quite delightful if not very coherent.
On the bus back to Sofia we experienced an astounding degree of Balkan driving. Speed limits are apparently for the weak and cutting people off is just par for the course but things got all sort of real about an hour in. All of a sudden there was a little red car screaming up beside us leaning on his horn the whole way. Maybe we cut him off? Maybe he was in a bad mood? Maybe it was a mafia thing? Either way, when he reached the front corner of the bus he started to pull back into our lane. It was more than just cutting us off, it was running us off the road! So there we were with the bus on the shoulder and the car pushing in against us while the uninvolved traffic continued to race by in the passing lane. I was too far back in the bus to hear what went on between our driver and the red car but we continued on the shoulder for a while before the red car finally decided to just cut us off rather than continuing the project to get us killed. All in all it was probably only a few minutes, but it was certainly a tense few minutes!
Once we made it back to Sofia, I hunted down the city’s oldest church—St. George’s Rotunda Church—which is situated in the courtyard of a collection of large neo-classical buildings. It’s a pretty little brick number but alas I was unable to get inside so I headed down the nearby pedestrian street, Vitosha Street, to find food. I ended up in a very pretty little restaurant with floral armchairs at every table and a server who clearly found it unbelievable that I should be dining alone. My book and I had a lovely dinner of “village bread” which was essentially a flatbread covered in spinach, walnuts, and a mixture of cream, cheese, and eggs. It cost less than €5 and was probably at least two square feet of ridiculously rich food. I nearly died. But that did not stop me picking up a piece of pistachio baklava on my way back.
When I eventually rolled myself back to the hostel I found a busy common room filled with the American, a Canadian I’d met in the kitchen the day before, a girl from Belfast and her travelling companion from Liverpool, one fellow of indeterminate origin, and 6 lads (in three groups) from various parts of Australia. We watched the footie, chatted, drank, and chatted some more. by 1am, all but one of the others had either gone to sleep or left to party. I and the only remaining Australian had chatted until about 2:30am when the Canadian returned and turned the conversation to rugby, and I excused myself to sleep.
After another chatty breakfast in the hostel and with a head full of thoughts, I set off for Boyana. There are two reasons to visit Boyana:
1. The UNESCO world heritage site that is Boyana Church
2. Boyana waterfall on the slopes of Vitosha Nature Reserve.
Normal people take the bus to the church and then go walking in the park. I have never claimed to be normal.
After ninety odd minutes of walking, I found myself at the church where I paid the small entry fee and was guided in by the caretaker. You are only allowed 10 minutes in the church but you could spend an entire day in that tiny little space and still be spotting novel details and masterful artistic touches. The entire interior of the church is painted with layers of frescos, the earliest from the 11th century. The base colour is a dark rich navy blue but the figures are decorated in every shade imaginable with pointillist work suggesting the ornamentation of their robes and and shading so rich and detailed that you can feel the hollowed cheeks and shaded eyes of each and every figure. Many are now missing eyes or other details, but where the details remain, there could be no more piercing or impressive depiction. I was blown away.
Once my ten minutes were up, I headed out into the park. Again proving my own insanity, I chose the 1 hour long difficult route rather than the 1 hour and 45 minute long easier option. Honestly, the waterfall wasn’t much to see but the walk was wonderful. The trails weren’t all that well marked but they gave me hours of entertainment as I pounced up inclines and clambered over rocks. Sometime around the last hour of walking (mid afternoon) I came across what looked like an abandoned ski hotel, but then I heard running water. Beginning a circumnavigation of the building I spotted more and more evidence that despite the decrepitude, some of the room remained inhabited. Perhaps squatters?
Because I am insatiably curious I continued my little wander around the building and had just crossed the patio on the city view side of the building when I coughed. Coughing has never been so swiftly punished. Within seconds my cough was drowned out by the calamitous barking and howling of a very large, leggy dog with at least a little German Shepherd somewhere in the mix. As he barrelled snarling towards me, I was for the very first time every genuinely afraid, in a there may be blood kind of way, of a dog. I kept him at bay with my own aggressive shouts and growls and a fiercely brandished fist as I backed slowly away and down off the patio by the only exit available to me.
Once I was off the patio, I slipped away down into the trees only to find that I was on a rock precipice with no way back to the trail. Fantastic. Fortunately, the guard dog had stopped at the edge of the patio and was barking from there. I guess he decided that I might have friends, though as he soon circled back around to the front of the building which gave me a much needed opportunity to circle around the cliff side of the building and lie in wait until he returned to the patio or went back inside. As I slunk around behind him aiming for my trail, he continued to snarl and woof ferociously at the world. When I finally reached the open trail, I checked quickly that the dog couldn’t see me and then exploded into a run. Roots, rocks, slopes be damned, the adrenaline and the barking behind me kept me in flight until I could no longer hear the menace. I’m not sure whether he stopped or I just got out of earshot but I was not inclined to worry one way or the other. I had escaped.
Somewhere further down the trail I found a beautiful view of the city, an antique power line which was buzzing furiously, and a fresh water tap. Despite the dubious noise of the wires, I rested there a bit staring at the city and sipping my water and then headed on out to the Dragalevski Monastery. The monastery is small and pretty. A little oasis in the forest with painted walls and a peaceful garden. And then it was back to the city. I trotted through the suburbs drawing all manner of stares and was nearly run over by a car that decided suddenly to pull out into the sidewalk without looking, but eventually made it back to the city centre where all I could think about was where and what I should eat.
The answer to that question was a fruit shake and a bowl of roasted sweet potatoes with hot peppers and fresh figs at a highly reviewed little restaurant called Made in Home. It was altogether delicious and not to expensive either.
As it was a Friday night, I headed out to the local salsa party where I finally found people who dance on lines! I had some good partners, some creepy, partners, and some very rough partners but all in all had rather a lot of fun. Had it not been so hot I might have stayed later, but as it was I left at 12:30 with a dry contact and soaked clothes. Isn’t hot weather wonderful for dance?
My final morning in Bulgaria began with my packing, scarfing breakfast, and checking out, all of which went off without a hitch. But then things went a bit sideways. Checking the bus station website, I found no evidence of the promised 9:30am bus. In fact, the website seemed to think that there was no bus until 2pm. I decided to risk it and head to the station anyway. At the station, I finally found a ticket seller whose booth advertised a 9:30 bus to Skopje, but when I reached the window and asked for the ticket she handed me a card and started speaking a shocking amount of Bulgarian. All I got out of it was Autogara Serdica and a series of gestures which distinctly suggested that Autogara Serdica was not my current location. Needless to say, having only ever seen one bus station on my map of Sofia, I panicked and turned on my data roaming. A quick google maps search provided all the reassurance I needed: it was just next door.
Once I found the right ticket booth at the right bus station I ordered my ticket, handed over my money and my passport, took back my passport, and then was told “Okay, 30 lev.” My lovely ticket agent—frazzled by a cluster of people complaining about something in Bulgarian, she insisted I hadn’t given her any money. Not only had I already paid, but I didn’t have another 30 lev on me so if she didn’t change her mind, I was going to have to try to find a cash machine and get back to pick up my ticket all in a matter of minutes before the bus left. And then I spotted the bills lying forgotten on the counter. Thankfully she was just frazzled, not trying to cheat me, so when I pointed out the rogue cash she apologized and the ticket was handed over.
At 9:30am my bus left the station, border-bound, and I munched my odd little chocolate covered, apple jelly filled gingerbread snacks all the way to Macedonia.
Bidding Bulgaria G’bye,