First Weekend in Sofia, First Evening and Morning

This post will share some general thoughts about my weekend in Sofia and then I will do a couple more posts about the tours I did on Sunday. I did some wandering around on my own when I arrived Saturday and saw some things that I revisited on Sunday. So future posts will have more details on some of the things I photographed in this post, which covers up to 11AM Sunday morning, ie. my departure from Malak Izvor, the ride to Sofia, my arrival in Sofia, the hotel, my first evening, and my first morning.

So Max showed up as promised Saturday morning. We discussed a few things, then he left me to book a hotel before driving me into Yablanitsa to catch a bus. I was surprised by how hard it was to find a hotel. I’m past the point of wanting to sleep in a dorm or in a roach motel and all the reviews for anything affordable were offputting. I finally found something that had the right mix of location, price, and positive reviews. More on the hotel in a few paragraphs. 🙂

Max thought there was a bus at 1PM, but there wasn’t… There are a couple of signs around the plaza in Yablanitsa showing the schedule and one of them had the 1PM bus crossed out. Damn. I managed to decipher the sign and figured out that there should be another bus at 2:15, so I sat down on a bench for a long wait. An old man came to me multiple times offering me, I eventually figured out, a lift to Sofia, but I wasn’t that desperate. It was just too odd!

Thankfully, the 2:15 bus did materialise! It was a whopping 6BGN/4.50CAD to go to Sofia. I should stress that I’m being sarcastic!

Off we went. At first, the scenery reminded me of the Okanagan.

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But then, it got greener and more lush.

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The villages all looked the same, white houses with orange roofs.

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All the signage on the bus was en français.

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I don’t know if all of Bulgaria looks like this, but, dang!

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See what I meant about all the villages looking the same?

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Approaching Sofia, we passed immense sunflower fields.

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The bus had an ashtray!

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Coming into Sofia, I saw a restaurant menu that made me hungry. The third item is what caught my attention, пица — peetsa. 🙂

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I arrived at the huge and still fairly new Централна Автогара — Centralna Avtogara — the bus station. From there, I got a taxi to my hotel. I’d done my research on taxis and knew not to get in one without posted prices and a working metre. The price was 0.79BGN/KM and I’d calculated it shouldn’t cost more than 5BGN to get to my hotel… I was right! I was so pleased that taxis are as cheap as I’d been told they would be. Here is a map of my universe this weekend:

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So I stayed at Hotel Zenith. The location was absolutely fantastic, just 10 minutes or so walking from nearly anything you’d want to see in Sofia, but on a quiet street. The staff all speak English. I forgot to grab a picture of the outside, but it’s really unassuming, just a small sign saying “Hotel Zenith.” The carpet inside is ugly, but the hotel is new and clean:

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Here’s my room:

I hadn’t had lunch and it was almost 5PM by this point. Famished doesn’t even begin to describe my mood. I decided to head to Vitosha Boulevard, Sofia’s pedestrian street, as I figured it would be my best bet for finding food quickly.

I have no idea how I picked the restaurant I did, but it might have had something to do with the fact that someone asked, in English, if they could help me. I was seated and given a huge menu, in English, with pictures. It was more like a catalogue! They had everything from burgers to pizza to sushi!

I’ve been meat deprived since I got here, so I decided to take a chance on their bacon cheeseburger. I didn’t bother with the fries, but, damn, the burger was good! Look at that thick bacon! This was exactly what I needed. I asked for no mayo on the burger and it came with ketchup. Not my first choice, but mustard is not common here so I didn’t even try. I like dill pickles now, so I liked the added flavour in the burger. The meat was seasoned, too. A great burger by any standards.

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The restaurant served gelato and I wanted some for dessert, but had no luck getting a dessert menu. So I decided to settle up and look for ice cream elsewhere. I did a quick Google and learned “smetkata, molya,” which means “the check, please.” I then walked around a bit and discovered there were at least a half dozen other gelato places on Vitosha. I picked one at random and got a huge chocolate waffle cone, figuring it was my belated lunch. 🙂

I passed a telenor store and popped in to buy some top up cards for my phone. I have not, and probably will never, figure out their pay as you go system, so please don’t ask about it. 😀 As far as I understand it, it’s like in Mexico, where you put money on your account and buy various packages. Because I only use my phone when I’m in town, I’ve just been putting 10BGN on my phone and using it until I run out. Probably not the least expensive way of doing it, but it’s been working fine. I’ve only spent 36BGN for my phone since I got here, and that’s, I’m told, super expensive compared to having an actual plan. Of that 36, I still have money on my phone and I have a 10BGN top up card I still haven’t used. The folks in this store was fantastic and went out of their way to find someone who spoke a smidgen of English even if what I wanted could easily be done with a bit of miming and holding up fingers.

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It started to pour when I came out of the store. And I’d left my raincoat at the hotel! Thankfully, I was wearing my wonderful Ipanema‘s, so I didn’t care if my shoes got wet.

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It ended up raining on and off for a bit longer, but I just got wet once the initial deluge was done.

I passed the courthouse (had to translate that from the French for a second — like in French, it’s a “palace of justice” in Bulgarian), and this would end up being an important landmark since the walking tours started from here.

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I think I have an Irish pub radar. Remember that I found one in Mérida too!

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Bulgarians, like Mexicans, apparently like cream cheese in their sushi. *growls*

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Sofia has a tram system.

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Holy Sunday Church. We will return. 🙂

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I liked the paint job on this building.

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I passed many Mac stores in Sofia, including one almost right next door to the hotel. Didn’t seen any PC stores…

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That’s about the same price as I paid for my 13″ MBA.

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Sofia is full of contrasting architecture like this.

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Sofia has a fairly recent subway system that is expanding.

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This is the south end of Vitosha Boulevard.

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We will come back to this. 🙂

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This is the cultural centre where there are exhibitions and business meetings.

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Mount Vitosha. Wow! I knew it was close to the city, but not that close! Very popular for skiing in the winter.

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So many billboards atop buildings.

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This Starbucks is right by my hotel and I’m proud to say I did not make use of it even though finding other coffee was a challenge (there is coffee everywhere, but I haven’t yet figured out the etiquette for cafes).

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I got in around 8PM Saturday night and went to bed around 11PM. I didn’t sleep nearly as well as I would have expected, considering how comfortable the bed was. I didn’t get up till 9AM on Sunday, with my tour being at 11AM.

I went to Vitosha Boulevard in search of breakfast. I ended up having all my meals there because it was the easiest option, if not the cheapest. I walked around for a bit until I saw a sandwich shop, Makis, that didn’t look too intimidating. They had a beautiful display of fresh sandwiches and a full coffee menu. I ordered a cappuccino and their Makis sandwich, which had ham and cheddar. It was a bit of a heavy meal, but I knew I’d be walking it off!

Let’s do a parenthesis here to talk about the value of learning to read Cyrillic before coming to Bulgaria (or Russia or Serbia or Ukraine or…). It is amazing how many words sound like English, especially on a menu. If you can read Bulgarian, you won’t go hungry. You might not get what you want, but you can very likely find something you like.

Examples:

бургер — burger

дунер — duner (donair)

пица — peetsa (pizza)

хот дог — hot dog

Чедар — chedar (cheddar cheese)

сандвич — sandvich (sandwich)

салам — salam (salami)

супа — soopa (soup)

салата — salata (salad)

I had fun reading everything I could see on Sunday and made out that this is the Sofia Hotel Balkan… then noticed the English next to it. LOL

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I thought this luggage was well designed. Notice the built in zipper lock:

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Pedestrians are controlled much like in London, with barriers to keep them from crossing streets where they’re not supposed to. For many “scary” intersections, there is actually a pedestrian underground passage, where you’ll find shops and restaurants.

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I had no idea how important these three buildings are. We’ll come back. 🙂

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McDonald’s was the first international company to take a chance on Bulgaria in the 1990s and it bought up the best locations in Sofia. There are now a lot of the restaurants around the city, but they’re not a popular chain.

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This is what the word Russian looks like in Russian. 🙂 This phrase is Russian, not Bulgarian, and it says “Russian Standard Vodka.” What did I tell you about learning to read one Cyrillic language being the key to the others? 🙂

 

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This is another Cyrillic font and it gives me a major headache! In this one, the m is the T sound (Т), the u is the I sound (И), and the g is the D sound (Д). WTFBBQ, as my best friend would say.

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Looking down Vitosha Boulevard to Mount Vitosha.

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Before I close up this novel and move onto the walking tours, here are some general thoughts on Sofia:

-The touristy part is very walkable and feels safe, but I was warned about pickpockets being abundant. I watched my purse! The city is pretty clean, but there is a lot of graffiti. I was struck by how varied the architecture is.

-I was warned by the Brits I know here that customer service in Bulgaria is very “European,” ie. there is very little. It was intimidating enough to go into a restaurant where I don’t speak the language, but being treated like a pest or ignored on top of that was a bit much. I did the path of least resistance thing my whole weekend. I just tried one restaurant after another until I got service. Makis sandwich shop was my favourite place as they were really nice. I ended up going again on Monday morning and the English-speaking guy wasn’t there, but the gal let me muddle through in Bulgarian and it was fine. It would be really nice to get someone to show me how to get seated at a restaurant since I passed a lot of nice little cafes where I would have liked to enjoy a coffee, but sitting myself down, saying “excuse me,” and trying to order at the bar did not produce results. The gelato place was also really good and even though they were more expensive than other shops, I went back several times. 🙂

-I found being in Sofia was exhausting because of how much work it was to do everything when you don’t really speak the language, but at the same time, it was easier than in Yablanitsa because there’s more of everything. I could wait until I found what I wanted, be it a bathroom, water, or meal, in an accessible and non-intimidating location. But for being a capital city in an EU country, I expcted a bit more effort to help tourists. I’ll do a write-up of my bus station adventure in a future post…

-Sofia is apparently the most expensive place in Bulgaria and Vitosha Boulevard is the most expensive place in Sofia. I found both to be inexpensive! I didn’t worry about prices at all.

11 thoughts on “First Weekend in Sofia, First Evening and Morning

  1. Thanks. Another great post. I know almost nothing about Bulgaria, and your adventure is sending me on a mission for history and culture.

      • There must be a secret hand shake or something. Could it be as simple as not wanting to serve “un-escorted” women? (Norma’s thought). are there other women sitting by themselves?

        • Norma is way off base. 😀 One of the positive legacies is gender equality. No formal studies have been done, but it is believed that Bulgaria has even more equality between the sexes than do the Scandinavian countries1 I think it’s a case of my not being assertive enough.

  2. If the Brits you know don’t have the answer to your service issue, check out http://www.ricksteves.com. He has alot of excellent travel advice including links, podcasts, travel forums where you can ask questions. He strongly encourages independent travel. His mantra is “travel like a local”. You should find your answer, as well as alot of other useful information!

    • Never been a fan of Rick Steves, to be honest. He says to live like a local, but he always looks like a tourist. I’ve been on some of his forums and the folks were snooty.

      • That’s a shame because I have been on two of his tours and they were excellent. We stayed at locally run hotels, the meals that were included were local food at restaurants run by locals and were great. He believes in travelling like a local. Sleeping where the locals sleep, eating where the locals eat, etc. There is nothing westernized about his tours. He has to personally know the people that guide the tours. Our last tour of Eastern Europe the guide was from Slovakia but her parents got them out when she was young and escaped to Switzerland. There wasn’t a question, she couldn’t answer. Part of the day will be guided with tours given by locals but then you have the majority of the day to explore and learn on your own. The tour provides you with his guidebook as well as a language book specific to the area so you can make an effort to communicate with locals. I could go on, more then I already have because I think he, his company, his travel style and what he stands for is fantastic.

        I just read your last post. If you do anymore guided tours, you should ask the tour guide about your issue. I’m sure they will be more than happy to help and let you in on the secret!

        • I know Rick Steves has quite a following, but he just doesn’t do it for me.

          I asked my guides so many questions that I didn’t feel comfortable asking them about café etiquette!

  3. Pingback: Goodbye Malak Izvor and a Final Afternoon in Sofia |

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