Given that this is the first in a series of posts on our Balkan adventure, I thought I should set the scene a little before launching straight into the Sofia story. Last Spring, Matt and I (yep, it’s Lucy writing) were in the distinctly un-fun final term of our degrees. In a swirling mess of essays, presentations and the dreaded speaking exam we decided that we needed something to look forward to once it was all over. And thus the Balkan adventure emerged. I happily adopted the role of route planner, Matt was in his element finding accommodation and before we knew it we’d got a fully functioning travel plan. Final term came and went (I refuse to spend any longer thinking about it) and before we knew it we were packing our (really quite small) bags and leaving Warwick as WizzAir whizzed us to the bright lights of Sofia…
Our arrival in Sofia is a bit blurry, possibly due to the early start. But nevertheless, we successfully obtained the correct currency and spent a whole 36p on a bus ticket to the city centre. Here the lack of a map (other than the mini one printed on the booking.com conformation) detrimentally affected our accommodation finding speed. Cue aimless wandering, stumbling upon a metro station and actually working out a route to the guesthouse. Wahoo. However, despite having found the right street we couldn’t see anything that looked remotely like a guesthouse. Consulting the building numbers, we established that the somewhat dilapidated building in front of us was actually the guesthouse. Inside we traipsed, and – spotting no signs of guesthouse – continued up the ever darker stairs until we reached an open doorway at the top and wandered into someone’s private apartment. Cue much confusion. But we did eventually find the guesthouse doorbell and discovered that the inside was vastly nicer than the outside. Phew.
After establishing that we did actually have somewhere to sleep it was food time. It was also time to get a proper first impression of Sofia. What we learnt that evening:
- Sofia smells really bad. Like ‘bin that hasn’t been emptied in weeks’ bad. We blame the drains.
- Drain covers, manhole covers, potholes, if it’s a sort of hole it was there on the pavements of Sofia, and it was there in quantity. You really need to watch where you are walking.
- There is a distinct lack of restaurants open late. We wandered and wandered but couldn’t find a restaurant that was both open and had a menu with prices.
And that is how we spent the first meal of our Balkan adventure in McDonalds. Does saying it was my first Big Mac improve the situation? Although we weren’t particularly happy with our meal option, it was in a good location and food is food. Unfortunately, just as we were warming to our al fresco dining experience a thunderstorm arrived. It was slightly like an apocalypse film as people began panicking and running, dust clouds racing down the street as the lightening came closer and closer… We grabbed our bags and walked back to the guesthouse at top speed, shutting the door just as it started chucking it down.
By morning the storm had cleared, but there was still rain in the air as we wandered to the bus station – not to get a bus, but to buy tickets for later on in the day. Matt celebrated buying the tickets (with a bit of help from a Bulgarian language app) by buying lodka, sausage in bread covered in melted cheese. [Matt: I also negotiated the lodka purchase entirely in Bulgarian and without consulting an app, I’ll have you know. Aren’t I great]. On the way back from the station the rain started. Hmph. After sheltering hopefully, we gave up waiting and decided to do our sightseeing walk in the rain. There were big churches and small churches, mosques and a cathedral, which was huge and unexpectedly dark inside.
Sofia is quite a large city, so we spent most of the day wandering, including to the football stadium because Matt loves visiting stadiums. No comment. Matt wanted to go into the stadium and I followed… until we were stopped by a very angry woman hissing “no visit” at us. We later realised that we’d been trying to wander into the on-site sport centre changing rooms [Matt: more specifically, I think they were the children’s changing rooms] so the cold reception was probably deserved! The rain got heavier again, and again was too prolonged to just shelter (this time under an abandoned Coca Cola stand) and wait. Fortunately the metro system in Sofia is great, cheap and extensive enough that you don’t have to walk far if you’re tired/at risk of drowning so we made it back to the centre and to a cheap pizza place for lunch.
At this point we worked out that we’d pretty much seen the sights of Sofia but still had 8 hours before the night bus. Defo time for a trip to the Museum of Socialist Art, so back on the metro we hopped.
The Museum of Socialist Art cost about 6€ each to get in but was money well spent. We set off by watching a video about the socialist art in Sofia and perused the collection of paintings before walking around the garden area which was full of statues. It was quite something, being surrounded by statues of Stalin, Marx and Lenin against towering concrete apartment blocks. The museum is well worth a visit – do not be put off by the security officer and gated entry!
The weather had cleared up in time for our walk back to the centre, stopping to relax and people watch in a square. We also came across a park with mineral water fountains. People were pulling their cars up and hopping out with 5 litre water containers and filling them up from the taps. After closer inspection we established that Sofia is built on a natural spring, which also explains why the Romans chose to build a settlement here – there are Roman remains all over the city, particularly in the metro stations. Watching this kept us occupied until it was time to make our way to the bus station, via Lidl for survival food.
The area around the station is not the nicest place ever – the abandoned spaces seem to have become a public urinal – but the bus station itself is surprisingly modern. We just about managed to order food from the bus station café before it closed – anyone for cold meat kebab and potato wedges?! – which we ate on a balcony, watching the sun set over bus stops and a large power station. But we did manage to buy a bottle of Cappy Pulpy which is fabulous drink.
And then we waited. I did my usual routine of walking around the bus station in a slightly agitated manner. Matt sat on a bench. We tried to convince ourselves that the night bus would be decent but our fate was sealed when a shuddering old minibus drove around the corner and Matt joked that it was probably ours. It was.