A Successful Day Trip to Sofia

Mission Star Trek was a success! 😀

The first thing that needed to happen for today to be a good day was for me to get to bed early enough last night that a 5:30 wakeup call would be reasonable. I’ve been staying up late, often to midnight, since I got here since my clients and friends are online in my late evening, and then getting up between eight and nine (!!!). Well, I was beat yesterday and managed to not only shut the lights at 9:30, but fall asleep before ten. So I woke up without my alarm at 5:30!

The dogs were so confused by this early wake up call that they did something they’ve never done: took a runner. I walked a few minutes without being able to hear them and was rather concerned that I was going to have to wait for them to come home. I called for them and Sausage eventually came. I headed home with him and left the gate open for Mechka. She turned up as I was making their breakfast (which was much more elaborate than mine). So thank goodness! Max told me not to freak out if they run off and that they come home, but what I day this would have been for that to happen!

I hurriedly gulped down some coffee and toast, dressed, double checked the contents of my backpack, and was out the door by 6:25.

I made it as far as just past the restaurant when a gal about my age came to a screeching halt beside me to give me a lift to Yablanitsa! Wow! That was a best case scenario because I’d have a choice of a lot more buses. We were in Yablanitsa by 6:40 and so I had a choice of two buses around seven and another at 7:30, which is the one I expected to be on. I flagged down the first seven o’clock bus. The cost was 6.50BGN.

There was quite a bit of construction and traffic and I’m pretty sure the buses drive only about 75KPH or so (it feels sloooow), so we didn’t get into Sofia until around nine. I was going to get off a couple of blocks before the bus station then realised that it was my only guaranteed bathroom stop before the mall, so I stayed on the bus! My breakfast had been meager, so I grabbed a still warm and flaky cheese croissant on my way out of the bus station.

It was only 1.5KM to “downtown”, so there was no point in taking a taxi. I just walked down boulevard Knyaginya Maria Luiza to the Banya Bashi Mosque, stopping en route to get some more top up cards for my phone.

This is the Lions Bridge. If you squint, you can see a yellow Billa sign on the right. How convenient! I popped in to check it out and decided to do my grocery shopping there on the way home. All I really “needed” that I can’t find in Yablanitsa is more peanut butter!

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Before I knew it, there was the mosque!

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I took a slight detour to check out the synagogue:

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Behind the mosque, I checked the opening hours for the Sofia history museum, and it was 11:00. Dang!

Since I had so much time before the movie, I took my time strolling through the ruins of Serdica. Here I am looking through one of the street-level domes down to the ruins:

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In case you missed that in the text, here are remains of an ancient Roman sewer system! WOW.

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You can walk all through the ruins. There were placards in places I would have assumed I wasn’t allowed to walk.

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I took a closer look at this building in front of the Presidential building and learned that it’s the archeological museum, as well as a former mosque. Unfortunately, they didn’t open until ten. 🙁

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I went behind the presidential building to check out the famous frescoes at the Church of St. George Rotunda. No photographs allowed, so you’ll just have to take my word that they were AMAZING. 😀

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Relative of my late Bitha? Very suspicious of me!

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There are more Roman ruins outside the church.

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Then, I just wandered! I grabbed a gelato on Boulevard Vitosha, then walked down Boulevard Aleksandar Stamboliyski towards the Mall of Sofia.

The architecture in this city never fails to stop me dead in my tracks.

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Surreal to see signs pointing to Belgrade!

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And here I am at the Mall of Sofia. I went in to make sure I could find the cinema and to confirm the showtime of 12:30. There was also one at 11:30, but it wasn’t in IMAX 3D and I decided that if I’d come all this way, I should do the whole experience. There wasn’t much of interest in the mall and it was about 10:45, so I headed out to explore the neighbourhood.

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The blocks of flats from the Communist era entranced me! They are all over Sofia, but this was my first time actually seeing them up close.

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This is across from the Mall of Sofia and translates to Sofia Technical School.

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Here’s a good example of how Bulgarian is often like French, only easier. Ниво sounds like “nee-vo” and means “level.” It sounds exactly like the French word for level, niveau. Only it ends with O rather than one of French’s 50 billion spelling combinations that sound like O but look nothing like it.

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This building was rather interesting!

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As a new reader to the language, I read everything I come across and when I see something like плюс that looks particularly “alien” I make an extra effort. I laughed when I realised it says… “plus”! The word above means store and it’s one of the first Cyrillic words that I can just “read” rather than sound out.

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Not an abandoned building…

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I was rather put upon that this kid wearing what appears to be a Mexican sombrero is advertising a pizzeria!

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Loved this pink lady!

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By 11:30, I was feeling peckish. I didn’t have time for a proper sit down meal, so this sign across from the Mall of Sofia caught my attention, advertising pizza and donairs. I wasn’t in the mood for pizza (!), but Middle Eastern food would be a welcome change of pace!

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I scanned the menu and most items were immediately familiar — donairs, shish kabob, fattoush salad, shish taouk, shawarma, and… фалафел! Falafel!!! A “medium sized” sandwich was only 2BGN!

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Since I’m not a picky eater, I just motioned for the guy to give me everything when he started to hold up each ingredient. I almost burst out laughing when he put French fries in my falafel! I took it to go and found a planter outside to sit on to have my lunch. It was nowhere near as flavourful or yummy as the falafel I had at the Holmes Grill on Baker Street in London, but the super garlicky sauce gave it ample flavour and I relished every bite! Speaking of relish, it had sweet bread and butter pickles, too, which totally worked!

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I photographed more flats after I was done eating.

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It was then time to go to the movie. I wrote “12:30” in my notebook and headed back to the mall. At the cinema, the cashier let me muddle through “One, Star Trek, *holds up notebook with the time,* please,” before asking me in perfect English if I needed a pair of 3D glasses. LOL Yes, I did. The ticket was 12BGN and the glasses were 1.50BGN, so about 10CAD total for both. Two reports out of Quebec put a 3D IMAX movie at being between $14 and $18CAD, so I got a good deal! I was amused that the tickets are printed on a dot matrix printer!

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Now, get this: I was the only one in the theatre!!! That worked out well since I didn’t like my assigned seat (too close to the screen despite my expressly sitting farther back than I normally do, anticipating this problem), so I was able to move back to a better one.

The movie was good and worth the trek (ha ha, see what I did there?). But the sound wasn’t great and with all the accents I know I’ll need to go back and relisten with English subtitles. I was surprised by how much did I manage to get out of the Bulgarian subs, especially when the aliens were talking their language and there would have been English subs at a US or CAD theatre. I would have just enough time to sound out the words/transliterations for things like captain, beware, Enterprise, Federation, etc. to get enough context to muddle through the plot. It was fun to see all the familiar Trek terms and names transliterated into Cyrillic.

Without going into any spoilers, I have to say that what I took from the movie was how it accurately, in my opinion, expressed the curse/blessing of having the nomad/explorer gene.

It was about 2:40 when I came out of the movie and I really wanted to make the bus to Teteven at four since that would save me a cab fare or, worse case, a 6KM walk, plus I was exhausted. I was a little disconcerted when I exited the theatre and was directed down a rather isolated staircase with no signage. I went down many flights until I saw a door marked “Mall of Sofia” and went through it to emerge on the main cinema level. I was surprised because I hadn’t realised I was sitting that far up!

I hoofed it to the previously scouted Billa, arriving around three. I didn’t get much and was a little (lot) annoyed with my language skills when I got to the cash register and the clerk pantomimed that I should have done “something” with my grapefruit and oranges and that she couldn’t sell them to me. I imagine it’s something along the lines of the City Deli on Isla requesting that you have things weighed first. I apologised and motioned for her to leave them since I didn’t have time to start all over.

It was 3:30 at this point, so I headed straight to the bus station. There, I went to the bakery again and got a ham and cheese croissant for the ride home. What can I say, their croissants are really good! 😀

I double checked the schedule I’d put together for myself and saw that the bus at four terminates at Teteven and should be leaving from gate 30. So I checked the electronic screen and, sure enough, that was the info listed. I scurried over to gate 30 and was one of the last to board. It was the same driver as last time, so I knew I wouldn’t have any issues getting off at the junction 2KM from home.

While I waited for the ticket lady to get to me, I pulled a map up on my phone. I didn’t want to get charged full price to Teteven so I wanted her to be aware I was getting off early. She seemed to understand me quite quickly and said, “Seven. Five to Yablanitsa, two to Malak Izvor.” That was a good deal seeing as I’m told a taxi from Yablanitsa to Malak Izvor is six to eight BGN!

The ride home was sloooow. Around Botevgrad, I understood snippets of a conversation between a woman and the driver and from what ensued guess that she said that her child really needed a bathroom and the driver figured he’d use the time to get fuel. So he pulled into a gas station and what seemed like half the bus got off to pee! The bus was a sauna and I was beyond ready to get home and rather annoyed by this little detour, but it was what it was.

We then detoured to Pravets, got back on the highway, and finally reached the turnoff for Yablanitsa. Holy smokes, it felt like the ride took forever! My phone was dead by this point, so I couldn’t check the time.

No one got off in Yablanitsa. As we approached the Malak Izvor turnoff, the ticket lady caught my eye and shook her head, which is the equivalent of nodding in Bulgaria. She called to the driver to give him a heads up and I heard “bagag” (luggage). I called out that I had none (literally said “no luggage”) and she gave me a big smile even as she did a double take that I’d understood that part of the conversation. Yay for my mother tongue again!

I hopped off the bus and took off at a pretty fast clip. Its only 2KM from the junction to “downtown” Malak Izvor, so really just a stroll. A few cars passed, but I wasn’t intent on getting a lift.

The dogs were super happy to see me when I got in! I quickly changed so I could take them on a short walk and then came in to collapse with a cold beer at 6:30. Dang was it a hot one today!

Max was right that a day trip to Sofia doesn’t make sense if you’re going exploring for the first time, but it was a perfectly sensible thing to do now that I have the lay of the land and was content to just have a couple of to-dos there. The bus fare is only 10CAD roundtrip and with lifts to/from Yablanitsa and/or being able to be picked up/dropped off at the junction cutting on my travel time considerably, it makes for a very reasonable day, no worse than going on a supply run to Moose Jaw.

Today was a Good Day.

Mission: Go to the Cinema in Bulgaria

Star Trek: Beyond is now in theatres and after much hemming and hawing, I’ve decided I need to see it in theatres even if I know I’m going to be disappointed by it. 😀 I had quite a lot of research to do, though, to determine that seeing it in a Bulgarian theatre was feasible.

First, I trolled a bunch of travel forums to learn that films in Bulgaria are subtitled. So like in Mexico, I could enjoy a movie in English.

Next, I had to determine if getting to a cinema on a day trip would be feasible. I did a search for “kino sofia” (кино софия) and got a list of cinemas. I picked the IMAX theatre at the Mall of Sofia because I had a rough idea of where it is and that it would be convenient to get to from the bus station and have grocery stores between the two.

On their website, I assumed that “Star Trek” wouldn’t be translated and so I typed “стар” into the search box, the Cyrillic phonetic spelling for star. I didn’t have to go any further because this pop up appeared:

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This page confirmed that the movie is in English (английски) and that it started on July 22nd. In the drop down menus below, I selected IMAX Sofia, 3D performance, the date (July 28th), and then looked at the times. 12:30 would be perfect!

Then, I had to figure out how to get to Sofia and back! This was the biggest challenge. I cobbled together a rough bus schedule from a number of sources. In an absolute best case scenario tomorrow morning, I will leave here around 6:40AM to get to the junction by 7:00AM to hopefully catch the Teteven-Sofia bus something before 7:00 and 7:30. Worst case, I will have to walk to Yablanitsa to arrive by 8:00AM and then catch the first of numerous buses to Sofia. If I get offered a lift to Yablanitsa before the Teteven bus is due to pass, I’m taking it!

That would get me to Sofia by 10:00AM at the latest, giving me time to walk to the Mall of Sofia by way of a few places whose interiors I wanted to visit, grab an early lunch, and find the theatre.

According to the information above, the movie is two hours long, so, counting previews, I should be out of there by 3:00PM. That would give me just enough time to get a few groceries before grabbing the 4:00PM bus to Teteven that would let me off at the junction. Miss that one and I have a couple of buses to Yablanista I can take. Worst case for that scenario, I can’t get the taxi or a lift and I have to walk all the way home. So I’d be home between 6:00PM and 8:00PM.

Will I succeed in my mission? Check back this time tomorrow. I suspect that since I’ve been getting up around 8:00, getting up by 5:30AM so I have time to walk the dogs will be the hardest part of the day!

How to Navigate Sofia’s Centralna Avotogarа/Central Bus Station Website (Централна Автогара)

Sofia is proud of it’s new Centralna Avtogara/Central Bus Station (Централна Автогара), claiming that it is a modern facility that has cut down on chaos. But it is actually a nightmare to navigate, even if you speak Bulgarian! I suspect that it’s easier to get to a major destination than a small town, of course, so the following instructions are likely more applicable to the latter.

While trying to get home the other day, I discovered that the Centralna Avtogara website is where you need to go to get information. It’s really not very user friendly, but the salient information is there. You really don’t need much more than two screens and also how to spell the name of your destination in Cyrillic.

This is the homepage for the website. Don’t worry about anything I haven’t highlighted.

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This home page gives you the next few departures, but they only list the termination points. If you want to go somewhere like Teteven that isn’t usually a termination point, you have to go deeper into the website, as per my note at the bottom.

You get to this screen:

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There are two ways you can navigate it. The slowest is to just scroll down and scan the destination names until you see your destination. The better way if you have the Bulgarian Cyrillic keyboard on your device (easy to add to iOS and OS X), do a search on the page for your city name.

In the example above, I was looking for a departure for Teteven. What I highlighted in the left column is the name Ribaritsa. That’s the destination I’m looking for. Next, I highlighted the time the bus leaves, the gate, and the cost. I only paid 7BGN for my trip, so that is the maximum amount you can expect to pay and it may be less if you’re not going the whole way.

If I kept scrolling and looking for Teteven, I would have found one more at a different time, gate, and price.

So now, you have a departure time and gate, but still don’t know where to buy a ticket. All I can say at this point is do what I did. Go to each wicket and scan the list for your termination point and destination. If you don’t see either, just go to the gate and hope that you can buy a ticket from the driver!

Monday morning, I brought up this screen and was able to determine that there would be two Teteven-bound buses that day. Well, what if I was looking for another day? The little green squares represent the days that route operates.  In the above example, all have seven green squares. So that means that there’s a 12:30 bus to Ribaritsa every day. If a day (usually Sunday) is greyed out, then the route doesn’t run that day.

I was warned that buses are delayed and canceled without notice, but hopefully this information will be enough to get you to your destination at some point, if not the exact time you wanted!

First Weekend in Sofia, Buying Groceries, the Bus Station from Hell, and the Nicest Man in Bulgaria

I knew there aren’t many buses to Teteven so I decided on Monday to aim for the second to last bus of the day, to play it safe. I had to do some serious digging on the bus station website to determine that my options were 12:30 or nearly 5PM. I didn’t want to take the chance of being stranded, so I planned my day to be on the 12:30 bus. My only real priority was going grocery shopping. This meant that when I woke up around 7:30AM desperate to go back to sleep, I didn’t. 🙂

I debated whether to take my suitcase with me or come back to the hotel to check out later and then realised that it was a no brainer. I’d brought the suitcase for the sole purpose of holding my groceries. Moreover, a quick check of the map the hotel provided showed me that there was a road just a block from the hotel that would go straight to the bus station and the grocery stores were at the halfway point. Talk about convenient!

One of my two tour guides had told me where to go for groceries downtown, Billa, and Lidl, so it had just been a matter of figuring out the closest ones, something that is not easy to do with Google Maps since the app is stupid and won’t show you the nearest results, but rather random ones. But I thankfully found the correct locations. The plan was to walk up to them to make sure they would be suitable, then head to Makis on Vitosha Boulevard for breakfast, stopping at the Central Post Office to mail Bast a post card.

The post office stop was… interesting. I walked into a cavernous room with wickets all around it, kind of like at a bank. I was ignored, of course, so I translated the signage at each wicket, trying to find one that would sell stamps. I also Googled how to say stamp in Bulgarian and came up with “marka” as being the most likely candidate. Finally, as I circled the room for the third or fourth time trying to decide who to approach to be told to get lost, a lady directly opposite the entrance motioned for me to come to her. I held up the post card I’d bought the day before and said, “I would like a stamp, please.” She sighed and reached into a desk drawer, pulling out a binder from which she extracted a sheet of stamps. After much sighing and muttering she tore some off, passed them to me, took them back, and then repeated the exercise with another binder. The stamps totaled, I believe, 1.70BGN. I only had a 20BGN note and I got the now common, “OMG, don’t you have change?!” eye roll. She didn’t have a till system, but instead reached into her own purse, pulled out her wallet, and came up with change for me! Wow. I thanked her, went out to the hall, licked the stamps, affixed them to my post card (one being upside down by accident), and dropped the card in the mail box outside. Now, to see if it gets to Virginia!

Needless to say, I was ravenous by this point and was very glad to get to Makis. The English speaking gentleman wasn’t there, but I earned a “Dobre” (the Spanish equivalent of claro, okay or got it) when I said “Bik iskal edno kaputcino c edno sandvich klasiko.” I am making progress! 😀 I didn’t like my Monday sandwich as much as my Sunday one (needed some sauce), but it was still very good!

I then headed to Billa. It’s about as close to a “proper” grocery store as you’ll get in Bulgaria, but very tiny. Like the stores in Yablanitsa and Teteven, it felt very haphazard in its layout. I circled twice before committing to purchases. I wanted to buy things like spices, sauces, and salad dressing to jazz up boring rice or veggies and also cheese and yoghurt since the store in Yablanitsa has been out of them. It wasn’t a very hot day so I wasn’t worried about my dairy going bad on the trip home. I also found some of that thick bacon at Billa! I spent about 66BGN (50CAD) on what amounted to mostly staples and things like shower gel and lotion. I even found (Greek) peanut butter! I was pretty happy with my haul, but decided that since I still had room in my suitcase, I would go check out Lidle, especially since I hadn’t found almond milk.

Lidle felt more like a North American supermarket in terms of the products available, including a lot of Tex-Mex stuff! I didn’t pick up much there, but I did snag some tortellini and what appeared to be pimento cream cheese, something I love but have a hard time finding these (spoiler: it was pimento cream cheese… but spicy!). They didn’t have almond milk either. I only spent about 20BGN there.

Grocery shopping in Bulgaria is delightful since there is food from all over Europe and labels are in a kazillion different languages. The tortellini, for example, were in Italian on the front, but the cooking instructions and ingredients on the back were in Bulgarian, Hungarian, Czech, and Romanian. Romanian is rather mutually intelligible with French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, so I was glad to see it. 😀 Just before the till at Billa, I saw cookies with an English label clearly identifying them as being the Central and Eastern European version of McVitie’s Jaffa Cakes from the UK, but the ingredients on the back of the package were in German, Bulgarian, Czech, Hungarian, and more, with no English. I was glad for the English front since I hadn’t picked up any “treats” and I adore Jaffa Cakes. These were half the cost as the McVitie’s version, so I grabbed two packages (spoiler: they are just as good!).

It’s also interesting to see what other palates like and how they interpret various cuisines. The irony of “Mexican-style cheddar” had me chortling in the aisle. Many foods that are considered luxury imports in North America, like some premium jarred Italian sauces, are just normal goods over here and a fraction of the cost.

Grocery shopping in Sofia was a positive experience, but I’m not sure it would be worth planning a day trip there to do it again since the buses are rather erratic. I would be better off making an effort to go to Teteven.

It was 11AM when I came out of Lidl and I decided to head straight to the bus station. I knew it had good bathrooms, several restaurants, and a waiting area, so it would be worth getting there with lots of time to kill in case I had trouble finding my bus. I must be psychic…

I hailed a cab and the driver appeared put upon with taking me the couple of klicks to the bus station (really, I could have walked, but I knew I had to lug my suitcase that far once I got home so no point getting fatigued to save about 4.50CAD). We got to the station and my total was just under 6GBN. I handed the driver two 1BGN coins and a 5BGN note. When he realised I was giving him a tip, the driver’s demeanour completely changed! He had popped the truck for me to get my suitcase and now hurried to get out of his seat to pull the suitcase out for me!

I got into the station and went to the electronics departure board (very small). It listed the departures until about 1PM and there was no Teteven on it.

There are about 28 wickets for the various bus companies, each listing the towns serviced and the departure times. I went through them repeatedly and… no Teteven.

I went to the information desk and asked, “Bus to Teteven?” The woman sighed and replied in perfect English, “Figure it out yourself.” Really! And she had been equally rude to the Bulgarian ahead of me as he literally left her counter in tears! Now that I think about it, that makes me feel better…

I went to the one window where I had seen Yablanitsa listed, thinking that might be it. The woman told me, in perfect English, to go to information!

It was almost noon by this point. I pulled up the bus station website on my phone and managed to get back to the screen that had suggested to me there might be a Teteven-bound bus at 12:30. I’m telling you, if I wasn’t as comfortable as I am now reading Cyrillic, I would have been at a dead end because I only had the stress of copy and pasting to Google Translate anything I wasn’t sure about, not the stress of staring at a language that might as well have been hieroglyphs. When I got to that screen, I saw that there was another name after Teteven, Ribaritsa. I looked up at the departure board and there was Ribaritsa, at the very bottom, leaving from “sector” 32 at 12:30. I had a departure gate, but still no idea where to buy a ticket.

I went to all the windows again and did not see Ribaritsa. I decided to take a chance that I could buy a ticket from the driver and to just go to the departure spot. En route, I picked up a cheese croissant to eat on the bus (spoiler: yum!).

I got to sector 32 at 12:20, just as a bus marked Ribaritsa pulled up. Soon as the driver was available, I asked him, “To Teteven?” He said yes. So far so good! He then wanted to put my suitcase under the bus. That wouldn’t do because I wanted to get dropped off at the turnoff to the village and was sure it would be hard enough to get him to do that, never mind get out and pull out my suitcase. His helper was pretty insistent so I said, “Not Teteven, Malak Izvor.” That stopped them dead. I mimed, “Here’s Yablanitsa, here’s Teteven, here’s Malak Izvor,” and got some confused looks. The driver then become my first hero of the day when he very patiently waited for me to pull up a map on Google. By the way, Google is as slow on blazing fast Bulgarian Internet as it is on slow poke Canadian internet!

Once the map was up, I pointed to Yablantisa and said, “Bus,” then showed the bus route to Teteven. That got me a “Da.” I then showed the turn off for Malak Izvor and then said “I” and then “walked” my fingers from the turnoff to the village. He went, “Oh!” and then “Two kilometres.” I replied in the affirmative to which I earned a “Dobre!” He then tried to take my suitcase again and I let him. When he came back, I asked, “Ticket?” (which, mercifully is “bilet,” so close to the French “billet”) and he motioned for me to go in and said what sounded like conductor. I went in, got comfortable, and just before we took off, his helper handed me two tickets totally 7BGN (1BGN more than the trip to Sofia) and had change for my 20!

Knowing that I would be let off at the turnoff meant that I could sit back and enjoy my trip without worrying about getting stranded in Teteven. I read for a bit, then enjoyed the scenery. We detoured to the town of Pravets before going through Yablanitsa. No one got off there. Next stop was me!

The nicest man in Bulgaria got off the bus with me (at least, I think he did, because I have no idea where else he could have materialised from). He earns his title in that he… lugged my suitcase all the way to the village!!!!!!!!!!! He wanted to take it straight to my place, but I made him hand it over at the guest house, before the final slog, because I didn’t want to take advantage of him! He babbled to me the whole way and I just shook my head apologetically. I don’t know who was more pleased when he said, “Ulitsa?” (street) and I had an answer for him! But even better, he had no idea where my street was and with my saying, “Store, hotel, [my street name],” miming the location of each, he understood!

Just the little slog at the end was exhausting so I can imagine what shape I would have been in if I’d had to drag the suitcase the whole way (although I suspect I would have gotten a lift if I’d been on my own). The bus driver and this man both made up for a lot on Monday.

The dogs were very happy to see me when I got in and the feeling was mutual! Max had left me a list of things to add to my chore list and a note that he’d be back on Friday.

So that was my great big Sofia adventure! It broke the ice on a lot. The next thing I want to try is to take a bus to Teteven and back, but that might be very tricky and could require me to leave at the crack of dawn and not come back till early evening. I might be better off finding out how much a taxi would cost. But I’m glad I figured out the buses, ate at restaurants, and was forced to use some of the Bulgarian I’ve been stowing away in my brain.

I will be taking about a week off at the end of August (when Max will be here with his daughter), renting a car, and going on a grand tour of Bulgaria. In the meantime, I will try to get out into the environs a bit and possibly return to Sofia one more time. I can’t believe we’re already three weeks into July! I knew my time here would fly by!

First Weekend in Sofia, the Communist Tour (by The 365)

There is no way I can do justice to Daniel’s nearly four-hour long tour about Communism in Bulgaria, but I suppose sharing a bit is better than sharing nothing…

Daniel was born in the late ’80s, as Communism collapsed. So his personal story is what his parents told him and more about the period of reconstruction than actually remembering what it was like to live under the regime.

To start, it’s a misnomer to call Communist countries Communist. Communism was a utopia that was aspired to, but the countries we think of as being Communist (like Russia) were instead hard core socialist states aiming to be Communist. This period in Bulgarian history started after the Second World War, during which Bulgaria was half-heartedly aligned with the Axis powers.

By the way, both Nikola and Daniel shared the darkly funny story of how Russia was pressuring Bulgaria to be more aggressive during WWII, so they decided to declare war on the country the farthest from them, figuring they wouldn’t be found on the map: the United States. Well, they were found and the US bombed the hell out of them…

Another thing about Bulgaria during this time that I should have mentioned in my last post is what happened to the Bulgarian Jews during the Holocaust. There was immense pressure from Hitler to deport them to the death camps. Bulgaria’s leaders stalled, claiming that they needed their Jews for reconstruction work. They stalled so much that the entire Jewish population in Bulgaria was spared, something that Bulgaria, deservedly, is very proud of!

The Communist tour started at the court house, but our first stop was the old Princess Korek building. There is no consensus on where the name came from and it is incredible the sign is still up. This building used to be a department store where certain people could buy luxury goods, which were anything not made in Bulgaria, from a Tic Tac to a Rolls Royce. You could only shop in there if you had US dollars and only a small group could have US dollars. Daniel’s parents said that shopping there was a matter of knowing someone who knew someone.

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The building hides this small church. Expressions of religion were frowned upon during the Communist era, but not outwardly banned as that would have turned religion into something of a forbidden fruit. It was still something very private that you did not discuss with neighbours. Another guide was baptised in this church and it was done at night with a very small group of people. The Princess Korec building was built in such a way as to hide the cross from the street.

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The Church of St. George is another example of a church that was hidden in plain sight. This is the only view of it not obstructed by other buildings.

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And here’s another sneaky church.

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We turned into this alley and the atmosphere was suddenly sinister. The picture does not do justice to how oppressive this alley felt.

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As it turned out, my gut feeling was correct. This building that is now a night club is where agents would “interrogate” (read, torture) dissidents of the state.

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This is the Bulgarian parliament, a few blocks from the Communist headquarters.

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The Communist headquarters were built in the solid “Communist style,” with three types of Greek columns marking the evolution of Communism. Daniels showed us pictures of the complex being built and then of the red star being removed. It is apparently on display in a museum in Sofia. There was a fourth building planned, but they ran out of money so, instead, there was a statue of Lenin.

This is the Monument to the Tsar Liberator, for Russian Emperor Alexander II who liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman rule during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. It is in front of the Parliament building.

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We paused here to discuss some positive benefits of life under Bulgarian Communist rule:

  • There was financial security under Communism. Daniel’s parents lost everything after Bulgaria became a democracy and the currency was devalued. Things they had taken for granted, like food, suddenly became scarce.
  • Education was free, even if there was a lot of propaganda.
  • There was gender equality, so much so that Bulgaria has one of the smallest wage gender gaps in the world, maybe even smaller than that of the Scandinavian countries.
  • Many social programs, like a generous maternity leave, still exist today.

At another stop , we discussed some of the negative aspects of living under Communism, like limited freedom of expression, but, to be honest, I don’t remember any extensive discussion of the cons like the pros. It was more something that we gleaned as the tour progressed.

One thing I found interesting was how housing was attributed by the government and you could wait for years to get an apartment. Daniel’s parents waited for years for their own place and raised Daniel and his brother in the same small apartment where one of his parents had grown up, sharing it with his grandparents; three generations living under one roof.

From our spot in front of the Parliament building, we could see Sofia University.

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We moved on to the controversial “monument to Communism,” showing a peasant, worker, and soldier.

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Notice that there is more brasswork to the bottom right. Hold that thought.

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The monument is in front of a skatepark. Kids tried to run up the sides, but failed.

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This guy didn’t. Wow!

The statues below the monument to Communism have been the subject of vandalism. This happened in 2011. Notice Ronald McDonald!

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Here it is today, cleaned up, but you can still see traces of the pink paint from another assault on it. The monument is now guarded by a video camera monitored by the “Friends of Russia.” I don’t dare look that up. 😀

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I didn’t take any more pictures of the National Palace of Culture, but we did talk about it a bit. It’s a convention centre and folks are polarised over its utility, or lack thereof. Daniel also talked about the monument to 13 centuries of Bulgaria and how it was built over a monument to WWI veterans. The monument was poorly constructed and fell apart quickly. Currently, the plan is to raze it to… build a monument to WWI veterans.

We continued to this little church…

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In front of which is the monument to all those who died during the Communist era. Thousands of names etched in stone…

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Our final stop was this piece of the Berlin Wall…

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At the end, Daniel gave us all a little pin to remember our tour by. Pins were apparently very popular at one time and he had quite a collection. We picked ours at random. He wasn’t sure what mine symbolises. мая is May, as in the month. I just popped the tiny letters into Google Translate and got “Patriotic War.” Nice little souvenir!

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This post does not even remotely do justice to Daniel’s tour. We learned about leaders of Bulgaria, assassination plots, conspiracy theories, and more. The tour had a fairly neutral point of view and ended with a brief description of how and why Bulgaria has managed to move into the West, with it being a member of the EU, while other nearby countries, like Serbia, have not and are aligned with Russia. It made me realise that I cannot leave this region without visiting other Balkan states.

I have to add something I should have mentioned on the free tour post. The Cyrillic alphabet is linked with Russia but guess what? It started in Bulgaria and Russia later adopted it! I was really surprised to learn that.

Well, if you’ve done the math, I started my day around 9AM and it was now almost 8PM and I had walked who knows how many kilometres. As you can imagine, I was very glad that the tour ended just a few blocks from the hotel. I thought we’d be much further away and had planned on taking a cab home. I was not even remotely hungry so I went straight back to the hotel and crashed. It wasn’t a matter of being too tired to look for food since there was a convenience store right by the hotel where I could have picked up munchies, but I was just beat and still digesting all that pizza and cake!

Sunday was a ridiculously full day, but a really good use of my time in Sofia. I really hope it won’t be my only chance to visit Sofia, but if it is, I hit all the main points.