Tim likes to travel. Follow his adventures as he explores the world.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Sofia, Bulgaria: The Balkans by Bus Road Trip Christmas 2016 pt. 1

Synopsis: This is actually the first Christmas I've ever spent without my parents. I haven't traveled much outside of Spain since I arrived here, with the exception of AndorraGibraltar, and a couple of trips back to the states. 

I want to see some of the countries in Europe that I haven't seen, so I finally decide on Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo - all by bus. Last time I did a multi-country trip like this was to the other side of the Balkans (Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro). 


Super cool map of the Balkans, from the hostel in Prizren
Super cool map of the Balkans, from the hostel in Prizren, Kosovo

Ainhoa will go with me for a week, and then has to leave. Greg will join me on the last days of the trip and we'll spend Christmas with one of his friends in Bulgaria.

Before the trip even starts, I'm already having a bit of adventure. Not realizing that despite being in the EU, Bulgaria has it's own currency, I go to one of the major banks in town to change money. They only do it for their customers... Go to another. Same. Finally, I go to my bank and they don't carry, nor can they order, money from Bulgaria, Albania, or Macedonia. 

It definitely took longer than 28 hours to do all of this
It definitely took longer than 28 hours to do all of this


Day 1: After a delicious dinner with the French club, we walk over to the bus station and catch our 1am bus to Soria. The bus is like a sauna so we sleep and sweat. Change buses in Soria. The bus from Soria to Madrid is just right and our seats recline super far back, offering better sleep. 

Upon arriving to the airport we have to take another bus to the right terminal. We change money at the airport, and surely get robbed, but we will need cash when we land. Take a two-hour nap in the terminal before getting on the plane. After three hours of sitting on butt-numbing RyanAir seats, we land in Sofia. Greeted by a bi-polar frontier police officer and an information lady, who both first act very rude with me and then suddenly smile and become nice. 

Take the world's smallest airport shuttle, with 500 people, to the larger terminal. Hop on the metro. Ainhoa makes friends with some other Spanish travelers and she gives them our number in case they want to meet up tomorrow. We meet our couchsurfing host, Nikolay, at his house and he has a really nice place overlooking the park by the National Palace of Culture. 

We go to grab dinner, at 19h. After dinner, we walk down the main street and see everyone eating dinner at 20h! This is amazing after two years of living in Spain, where they eat dinner after vampires go to sleep. We continue to walk around the city as Nikolay shares local history and fun facts about the country. There are no laws against changing the facades of the building so there are so many mixes of architectural facades and building "improvements", such as the hilariously giant satellite two floors below Nikolay's place. 

He recommends we stop and look in at a gym. Quite an interesting gym that seems to cater to a more affluent clientele. We are even required to wear shoe slippers to enter and walk around. Later, we head to a bar called Hambara (which is Bulgarian for "barn") and it IS a barn that has no lights, only candles. We try a 25-year old rakia (plum brandy). Nazdraveh! From there we go to a supermarket to get food so I can prepare omelets in the morning. 

Thoughts: So many buses already and so many more to go. We were practicing our Bulgarian in the airport but it is definitely not a language we are going to be able to remember for long. So many smokers everywhere. Nikolay says the Bulgarian people like new and shiny. He seems to be a pretty cool guy and we've made a few plans to hang out and do things together during our stay. 
Ainhoa plans to give a bag of candy from El Caserío to all of our hosts.



Early in the morning, but we're still excited
Early in the morning, but we're still excited

Let's do this!
Let's do this!

Taking pictures with some locals. They didn't talk much.
Taking pictures with some locals. They didn't talk much.

Inside Hambara, lit only with candles
Inside Hambara, lit only with candles

With our host, Nikolay, on Vitosha street
With our host, Nikolay, on Vitosha street

Day 2:
 Wake up and prepare delicious omelets for breakfast. Nikolay shares e
klairi, like mini eclairs. Ainhoa and I head out into the city, but first to the bus station, to get our tickets for Thessaloniki. We decide to buy them later online with Nikolay's help. Walk through the Old Market, a huge street bazaar, on our way to meet up with the free walking tour. I need change for the tip later, so before the tour starts I try to break a 50 at a small shop and the lady is super rude. I go to two mores stores before someone will break it. 

Vasil is an excellent guide and very energetic and informative. He tells us a joke about why Bulgarians are often late; because it might save your life - an assassination attempt on Boris III failed because he was late. Another joke about Bulgarians procrastinating - Boris III procrastinated exporting the Jews from Bulgaria to Germany during WWII, so long that the war ended first, saving the lives of 50,000 Jews. 

On our tour we also learn:
-About 1.7 million people live in Sofia.
-From Tolerance Square, you can see Roman, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Orthodox buildings. 
-There is an amazing mix of cultures and religions and time periods. 
-Lions are everywhere (money, buildings, brands, etc.) in the country because it's the national animal. 
-Sofia means "wisdom" in Bulgarian. 
-Hagia Sophia cathedral in Istanbul built at the same time as the one in Bulgaria. 
-Public baths were for hygiene and also to get the latest gossip. 
-The locals hang marcheniza, red and white yarn, on trees for health and prosperity.
-The Russians brought the French language to Bulgaria, back when French was the international language of diplomacy, and many of the words stuck, like "merci" and "gendarmerie".

After the tour we go back to Alexander Nevsky Cathedral Church. Inside is reminiscent of other churches, but here there is nothing roped off and no "do not touch" signs, and people are walking on the altar and in areas that I've previously never seen open in other churches. I walk onto where the priests sit and when I reach to touch the chair, a 70-something year old Bulgarian appears out of the shadows and runs over, yelling angrily "neh" at me. So, the rest of the time I'm in the church he follows me around. 

Next we walk to the St. Sofia Basilica and it is the first all brick church I've seen in Europe. We run into the Spanish girls from earlier and walk through a flea market with them before parting ways. We go to the Russian Church of St. Seraphin the Wonderworker, where you can write wishes that he'll grant if you leave them near his tomb. 

We continue on through a German Christmas market and buy gluhwein from a Mexican guy, who we chat with a bit. Then we head into the central market, which is modern and offers a nice contrast to the Old Market we saw earlier. We continue on and enter the Sofia Synagogue, the third biggest synagogue in Europe, and have private tour from the oldest and kindest Jewish person in Bulgaria, who amazingly does our tour in Spanish and English. 

Afterward, we go back the central market to get warm and eat some snacks we brought, lightening the load of my backpack. Then we walk back to Nikolay's house and we tell him about our day and our plans for tomorrow, and also that we need to get bus tickets to Greece. Nikolay recommends Arda Tur and helps us buy our tickets. 

Later, we walk around the park at the National Palace of Culture before heading to Happy, a local chain restaurant, for dinner. We try some Bulgarian wine, which is a bit drier than the Spanish wines, but still pretty good. After dinner we head home.

Thoughts: Bulgaria has very old and interesting history, much of which I had no idea. It's not hard to find information in English. The Bulgarian Lev (stutinki = cents) fixed at 1,95€. Bulgarian bike lanes are ridiculously designed and at times unusable. 

Prices are much lower than Spain, but in tourist areas a bit more expensive. Restaurants are quite affordable. Nikolay says a 5% tip is normal. 

What are the odds that an American and a Spaniard go to Bulgaria and see a German Christmas market and meet a Mexican? We have noticed quite a few stray cats and dogs on the streets, but they don't seem to be bothering anyone. There is still some ice on the ground from previous snow. Free wifi in every restaurant and in some parks. 

Overall, though I've had a few negative experiences with some locals, my take on the Bulgarians in general is that they are very nice and courteous people. They laugh everytime I try to speak their language, but I think they appreciate it. Not so cold here but the wind is unforgiving.


The Rotunda, the free walking tour, and the TMax
The St. George Rotunda, the free walking tour, and the TMax


Hot fountains + my cold hands = happy me
Hot fountains + my cold hands = happy me

I love that the dude is taking pictures of me in front of the Ivan Vazov National Theater
I like that the dude is taking pictures of me in front of the Ivan Vazov National Theater

Marchenizas are everywhere in this tree
Marchenizas are everywhere in this tree



I got to play Ferdinand I in a locally produced reenactment of Bulgarian history
I got to play Ferdinand I in a locally produced reenactment of Bulgarian history

Ainhoa admiring the chandelier in Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Ainhoa admiring the chandelier in Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Having way too much fun with statues
Having way too much fun with statues

Warm wine is so welcome on such a cold day
Warm wine is so welcome on such a cold day

Changing the guard, like in... every country in Europe
Changing the guard, like in... every country in Europe

Touring the Sofia Synagogue
Touring the Sofia Synagogue

Look at the sign, and then look in the background. Haha
Look at the sign, and then look in the background. Haha

The life of a traveler
The life of a traveler

Day 3: Wake up and have coffee with Nikolay before heading out into the city to have a traditional Bulgarian breakfast: banitsa and boza. At the bakery, they don't speak English so we do our best to order and end up with one apple banitsa and one cheese, plus one normal boza and one sugar-free one, which we try to exchange for a normal one, but a communication break down doesn't allow it. Ainhoa graciously drinks the gross, sugar free one.

It's snowing as we leave the bakery. Walk through the university, two parks: the Doctor's Garden and Park Zaimov, and then down the "embassy street", but we only see one embassy. Head over to Knyazheska Garden, which has the Monument to the Soviet Army, dedicated to the Russians because they freed Bulgaria from Germany in WWII, and has had some recent fame due to some artistic modifications of its statues. Run into two French girls who take some photos for us. About 10 minutes later we see them again and they say they were harassed by a Bulgarian man who spoke French and told them to go back to their country and spat at their feet. 

It's cold and we have to pee, so we find a quaint little cafe across the street. As we walk back to the center, we cross the church we saw the first night, St. Sedmochislenitsi Church, and go in. From there we look for a traditional Bulgarian restaurant and decide on Hadjidraganov's Cellars, which I saw in this blogThere are traditional clothes and paintings on the walls and folk music playing on the speakers. We are given two huge wooden menus with so many options. We take some of the waiter's recommendations and even start our meal with a traditional rakia. We really liked one of the spices, which is a blend called Sharmen Sol, and the waiter writes the name down for us so we can buy it in the grocery store later. An English speaking tour comes in and sits right next to us, so we get a free history lesson on Bulgarian food and dances. The food is quite good, and at a good price. 

After eating we walk to the Rotunda (aka Saint George Church), which is the oldest monument in Sofia, and suffered no damages during WWII, unlike much of the rest of the city. Next we walk to the Church of St. Petka Samardijiska, which was highly recommended from our tour, but it's closed. So, we go to Saint Nedelya Cathedral, where there was an assassination attempt on Boris III. Afterward we go to Saint Nicholas of Sofia, which is the first church we've seen that has hard wood floors instead of marble. 

We were going to go to Boyana Church of St. Nikola and St. Panteleymon, but it is quite far and will be closed before we get there. Head back home to meet up with Nikolay, catch the metro to a huge shopping mall, Paradise Center, and have dinner before watching a movie, Inferno. Then we call it a night and head home.

Thoughts: We saw 15 different churches, synagogues, mosques, and cathedrals. Most were quite similar inside with similar paintings and layouts. Sidewalks and roads are in poor condition throughout the city. 

Food and drink and clothes are quite cheap in Bulgaria, but electronics are even more expensive than Spain. Seems the most popular naming scheme for stores and restaurants start with "Mr." as we saw Mr. Pancake, Mr. Pizza, Mr. Almond, and Mr. Bricolage. Part of Nikolay's childhood was spent during communism and he had some interesting stories about life in this time period.

Smoking laws are a way more liberal than rest of EU, as we see people smoking indoors in many locations that would normally not be allowed. Seems the female Bulgarian smokers prefer to smoke slims, scientifically proven by my patented "look and see" method. 


Starting the day, the Bulgarian way
Starting the day, the Bulgarian way

Store half underground. New ones cannot be open, but old ones can continue to operate.
Store half underground. New ones cannot be open, but old ones can continue to operate.


Ainhoa catching snowflakes in the Doctor's Garden
Ainhoa catching snowflakes in the Doctor's Garden


So much time was spent taking photos here
So much time was spent taking photos here

Ainhoa: "Guys, according to the map, we should..." Tim: "Squirrel!"
Ainhoa: "Guys, according to the map, we should..."
Tim: "Squirrel!"

Bon apetit! Yes, they say that in Bulgaria, too
Bon apetit! Yes, they say that in Bulgaria, too

This is what happens on subways after the kiddies go to bed
This is what happens on subways after the kiddies go to bed

Day 4: Wake up and go out to get banitsa for breakfast again. We are looking for different flavors than last time, but can't find any, so we walk to a few other bakeries, but they have only the traditional cheese. It is freezing outside, so far the coldest day, - 7C according to my phone. We walk back to the house empty-handed, but first stop in St. Georgi Pobedonosets Church, the one closest to the house, but for whatever reason we didn't see until now. 

At the house, we have a coffee and Nikolay tells us where we can find a bakery with more variety. As it is our last day here, we say our goodbyes and head to the bakery where we are helped by a nice guy who translates for us to get a spinach and a milk, egg, cheese banitsa, with ayran (a yogurt drink) on the side, which Ainhoa enjoys, but me not so much. 

We walk back through the Old Market to see if they have anything new or interesting, then continue on to the bus station. We hang out there for about an hour before or bus departs. Arda Tur is way better than Alsa, and cheaper. It has stronger Wi-Fi (that works in Bulgaria and Greece), Dian is serving us free coffee/tea, drinks, a snack, we have tv's in each seat, and a bathroom. It is a very comfortable 5 hours to Thessaloniki. Only negative thing is driver is occasionally smoking on the bus.

Continue the journey with me to Greece


This is a six-part blog. Here are the links:


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Location: Sofia, Bulgaria

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