Eastern Europe: Sofia, Bulgaria
As soon as I finished my final summer intensive class the first thing I did was jump onto Skyscanner, type Malaga to ‘Everywhere’ and looked at my cheapest European flight options. The first country that came up, which I hadn’t of course been to already, was Bulgaria. Possibly not everyone’s traditional idea of a holiday destination but certainly, at least to me, a location that fulfilled the requisite of being unknown and having the potential for adventure. Tickets booked, I found myself a few days later on a plane to Sofia.
My first impressions of Sofia were somewhat interesting as a kamikaze taxi driver transported me from the airport, slightly after midnight, through the central yellow cobblestone paved roads of the city and deposited me outside my guest house. Glad to be alive I was promptly whistled at by a prostitute before waking up a beleaguered looking lady from the guest house who collected my room payment in her nightgown.
The morning was radiant and bright and I walked into the centre of the city, I had some breakfast on the steps of the Sveta Nedelya Church, one of the many prominent Orthodox churches around Sofia before I walked off to the rather grander Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. I spent a bit of time in the expansive City Garden Park before getting a little overheated and deciding to shelter from the glaring sun in the communist period defined subway.
The red line took me to the Joilot-Curie station from where I took a rather mazey walk to the Museum of Socialist Art. Like many things in Sofia the art museum was recently established, a new purpose for a re-imagined building that is beginning to sow the seeds of accessible culture that most great European cities already have. I rather enjoyed this feel of a city blossoming, changing and adapting. The Museum of Socialist Art lived up to expectations, grand paintings highlighting once feared or revered leaders in glorious images of societal success. Further authenticity came from the burgundy red star that adorned the otherwise mysteriously unlabelled entrance, sequestered from the party headquarters in Sofia from the fall of the communist regime in 1989. In the garden they have a selection of communist sculptures, mostly of Lenin and his fellow comrades, standing in typically strong and domineering poses.
In the evening I had a little walk around the commercial district, ambling by popular terraced cafes and bars along Vitosha Boulevard, but ultimately grabbing a cheap kebab on a side street, I would explore the streets at night the following evening, but there was definitely a cosmopolitan and social vibe within the local population.
The following morning I met my second kamikaze taxi driver on the drive to Boyana Church. The church however was not my destination but merely the beginning of an epic hike up the imposing mountain that dominates the northern horizon of Sofia. I did have a quick look at the church, but it was of little interest to me, especially as they wanted my cash to go inside.
Hiking is free, and I was quite excited. Initially I planned to hike up the Boyana waterfall and then onto the summit. Mt. Vitosha stands at 2,292m and the beginning of the hike was certainly the most arduous. There were longer, less steep options but I like a challenge and took the steeper path following the edge of the river that emanates from the waterfall above. It was slippery more than anything else and my trainers were not particularly suited to the task at hand but I managed to reach and clamber over the various stages of the waterfall, the most impressive phase being home to some determined rock climbers.
After I had helped three Bulgarian men take some photos and vice-versa and exchanged football allegiance pleasantries I pushed on. The trail led through varying types of forest and past long-abandoned mountain lodges and huts until the trail broke out through the conifers to a lush section of tall grass. The steepness lessened but the ultimate destination, the Cherni Vruh peak was still far away. This was not to be a short hike… https://www.strava.com/activities/368125067
I continued along a beaten down path, taking some views of the incredible scenery that the mountain had been blessed with until the tall grass made way to a rather rockier landscape and a muddy path that twisted over terrain not too dissimilar to that found on Dartmoor in England, the only exception being the mostly derelict ski lifts that cut forlorn lines across the landscape now and again. Finally I summited, I climbed a rather precarious rocky outcrop so that I could officially say I have been to the fourth highest peak in Bulgaria.
The descent followed a different route, and I had half-hoped that I could have got a bus down from the Aleko ski area, but I found out it only ran on weekends. To lessen the disappointment I had a beer and a bag of crisps. Instead I hiked down the through the rocky forests along some marked paths until I emerged from the mountain slopes in the Simeonovo District, after encountering a few cows on the street I finally hailed a rather more conservative cab driver who took me home. I had an interesting chat with the driver, little of which I can recall, apart from his adamant disdain for London.
In the evening I wandered the streets of Sofia looking for a specific restaurant which I never found, this was a blessing in disguise as I had a lovely fillet steak for an incredibly cheap price. The streets around the main areas were packed with people and their was some genuine entertainment in the form of a street choir and some break dancers vying for attention.
The following day I had an early evening flight to Athens. After a much needed sleep-in I spent the day in a cafe drinking tea and juice and looking around the contemporary art on offer at the City Art Gallery and the National Gallery. Both small in size but high on quality. I had some decidedly dodgy fare (bottom end problems to follow later) in the basement of the city market, but at least I could say I had some authentic Bulgarian fare. Fearing that my luck may run out in another taxi ride I took the subway to the airport, next stop, Athens.