24 May – 25 May, 2014
It was a hot, muggy Saturday when we took the bus from Veliko Tarnovo to Sofia, our final city in Bulgaria. We got into Sofia in the afternoon, and stored our bags at the bus stop and walked around downtown. Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria, and I liked it immediately. It’s still a small city compared to the capitals of Western Europe, but has that certain “city” aura to it that our previous stops in Bulgaria had lacked. There was so much going on in Sofia that weekend, which made it a great time to be there. The whole time we’d been in Bulgaria, it had been leading up to some sort of EU elections, so there were posters all over and people handing out fliers for different propositions. We had fun trying to figure out what the various ones were for. It was also the Bulgarian Education and Culture and Slavonic Literature Day. A mouthful, I know. Basically it was a national holiday celebrating Bulgarian culture and the Cyrillic alphabet, which was created in Bulgaria. When we were walking around we strolled through a park where there were tons of school children dressed in traditional clothing singing songs and running around.
Late in the afternoon it began to rain suddenly, and we took shelter in the doorway of a tiny Orthodox church. Inside, services were being held, and we peeked into the smoky, candlelit interior and listened to the sounds of the priests and congregation singing. During my travels, I really loved visiting the Orthodox churches and observing moments like these. There’s a mystery, spirituality, and ancient quality to the religion that draws me to it. A woman there told us that we should go visit Alexander Nevski, the huge, golden-domed Orthodox church that is a landmark in Sofia, that something big would be happening there soon. So off we went to find out.
At Alexander Nevski, there certainly was something big happening, but it didn’t really have anything to do with the church. It was prom night for many of the local high schools, and they were using the church parking lot as a gathering space! I’ve never seen anything like this. Nobody does prom like Bulgarians. In Bulgaria, prom night is not just a night to get dressed up in fancy clothes. Prom is the entry to adulthood, the last night to party with one’s graduating class, the biggest night of a young person’s life so far. In a country where the average monthly wage is only $500 a month, parents put away months worth of salary to pay for this thing. And the kids go nuts. They rent fancy cars and limos, some old retro cars, or even a horse and carriage, cover them with balloons, and drive down the street with their emergency lights flashing, honking the horn and screaming at the top of their lungs. At first we thought there was some massive protest going on, but no, it was just every teenager in Sofia. Around 6 they all head over to Alexander Nevski to take pictures and start meeting up with their crew. The scene there was insane. There were speakers on top of cars, and even marching bands getting the dancing started. Constantly, one teenager would start counting to twelve, and everyone near them would join in, counting down the twelve years of school, and cheering and screaming when they got to the last number. And the fashion! I wish I’d taken better pictures. The most over-the-top dresses, heels, makeup and updos you’ve ever seen. At first I didn’t believe that these were high schoolers, they were so overdone. But that’s how they roll there. It was people-watching at it’s finest.
After taking in that scene for a bit, we took the metro out to meet Emil and Simona, our Couchsurfing hosts for Sofia. Emil had said that we were welcome in their small apartment, and it was located in a massive, ugly Communist block building in a suburb of Sofia, so I expected a tiny, dismal place. However, their place was massive, clean and modern. We even had our own room that was larger than any of the rooms in our apartment in the states! Emil and Simona were amazing hosts, always wanting to take care of us. The next morning, we all got up early, and Emil had made espresso and crepes that we ate with homemade jam and Bulgarian cheese. Apparently, he used to work in a cafe in Cardiff, where he went to school, and he could cook very well! Then we went off with Emil and his friend, who drove like a maniac through the streets of Sofia, until we were at the base of the Vitosha mountain, where they were going to go parasailing. They dropped us off at the lift, which we took up to the top. I’m the least athletic person imaginable and have never been skiing, so had never ridden a ski lift before. It was so much fun and a little scary! You’re so high up above the trees, with nothing but a janky bar that doesn’t hold you in very well. It felt very adventurous. Lucky for me, the strapping Bulgarian men working at the lift recognized I was a dumbass who had no idea what I was doing, and would grab me off the chair at the end so it didn’t hit me. Thanks guys! At the top, we found the hiking trail Emil had described and soon found ourselves in a beautiful Alpine setting with wildflowers and gathering storm clouds. It was moody and romantic, or as I said at the time “All Sound of Music and DOOM!” We found Emil and his friends on the edge of a vista with a sweeping view of the city below. They readied their gear and parachutes, and when the time was right went running right off the edge of the mountain and into the sky! It was amazing. Once they were all off, we snapped a few pictures then got out of there quickly, trying to beat the storm down the mountainside. It’s for stories like this that I really enjoy Couchsurfing; without staying with him we never would have gotten up early on a Sunday morning to hike on a beautiful Alpine mountain and watch our new friends parasail off the top of it!
Once we’d successfully outrun the rain, we spent a pleasant day enjoying Sofia. We pondered the hulking Monument to the Bulgarian State, a huge Socialist statue that, like many things in Bulgaria, has been just left to slowly fall apart. After this, we walked up the fashionable Vitosha Boulevard, a striking contrast since this was the first street where fancy Capitalist stores started moving in after the fall of Socialism. It’s quite a nice street and is closed to cars so all of the restaurants and cafes have seating outside. We ate at a place called Ugo, and had our last Bulgarian pizzas. I had the Pirate pizza with seafood and garlic sauce. Yum! Since leaving Bulgaria, I’ve barely eaten pizza since I od’ed on it so much there.
Since I am a theater person, I love seeing live performance when I travel. Sofia has some theater and opera with good reputations, so we went to figure out if there was anything happening that evening. Once we found the opera house, we discovered, to our delight, that there was a performance of Zorba the Greek (a ballet, not an opera, or a showing of the classic film) about to start. We got tickets in the back row that were super cheap and still had great visibility. Score! I always have this dream of visiting the opera or theater when I’m traveling and being able to get dressed up and fancy, but this doesn’t seem to happen. We were sweaty, in tennis shoes and jeans with a big ol’ backpack. Oh well. The ballet was still fantastic! I always forget how much I love watching dance until I watch it again. I am in awe of dancers, how strong and athletic they are, and how they are able to tell so much story and emotion through their impeccably trained bodies. This cast was amazing, and the whole audience was so into it, that they did 3 encores!
It was our last night together in Bulgaria, so we did a little bar hopping. First we went to a place recommended by our Lonely Planet guide book called the Ale House, which turned out to be pretty cool. It was a basement tavern that makes its own ale, and each table has its own tap at it with a digital reader of how much has been tapped. So you help yourself and drink your fill, and pay at the end depending on how much you drank. Such a great concept! It was a little pricey, but damn good ale, and we nibbled some dessert as well. It would have been far too easy to stay there all night, but we ended up at an outdoor place back on fancy Vitosha Boulevard with weak cocktails and slow service. Ah, well. We still had a great last night and took some fun pictures.
Back at Emil and Simona’s place, we hung out for a bit, then got all of our things ready to leave the next day. I did not sleep well at all that night. We had to get up before 6 am to get to the bus station, and I can never sleep when I have to wake up early. Emil sweetly got up and made us some coffee, and we rushed to the bus station. At 7, the time had come to part, and I had a moment of panic when I realized that once Zac boarded his bus, I was truly on my own. He walked through one door to take the bus back to Istanbul, and ultimately return home to the states, while I walked through the opposite door, to take the bus to Belgrade. . . and the unknown.
The saga continues. . .
Good Luck and Happy Travels,