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!

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

  1. Time does indeed seem to be flying by. So much done already! You must be related to the Energizer bunny. 🙂

    • You have no idea how EXHAUSTED I am. I haven’t adjusted yet to the time difference in North America. I want to be up early here, like I am at home, but I end up going to be way too late because all my friends are up!

  2. Such a very different culture to adapt to what with all their idiosyncrasies. Not easy at all but you are doing great.

  3. Isn’t it just unbelievable that Internet in Bulgaria is so much faster than in Canada? Probably faster than most of the U.S. too.

    I’ve been reading your posts about Bulgaria with great interest since I know practically nothing about that part of the world.

    • No, it’s absolutely believable. One survey put Bulgarian around third place in the world for fastest speeds and lowest prices and Canada was around 137th… Canada and the US are so far behind the rest of the developed world, it’s shameful.

      I knew almost nothing about this part of the world either and am learning a lot!

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