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August 17, 2005


Monday, August 15 to Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Sofia, Bulgaria:

Da! I liked Sofia from the moment I got there. While I wasn't quite sure of what to expect (blocky buildings, borscht, Borises?), the city's wide boulevards, aging baroque buildings and gold brick streets made it instantly accessible, while the ornate, gold-domed Orthodox churches, monolithic Soviet-era government buildings, and the prominently-featured Banya Bashi Mosque spoke of diverse elements in its cultural history. Gradually growing accustomed to visitors, though there are still relatively few of them, I found a number of people spoke at least a little English. The language barrier was never too daunting and the customs and lifestyle were familiar enough; there were plenty of sharply-dressed young people in the streets at night, generally acting as such groups do in any other major city in Europe or North America. Plenty of eclectic cafes and restaurants gave me numerous options for meals and temporary shelter during the frequent afternoon downpours. I never met anybody named Boris there either.

I reached the city on Monday evening following a three hour bus ride from Velko Tarnovo. The drive through the Bulgarian mountains gave me views of a pristine countryside spotted with small old villages built almost entirely of uniform white and red-roofed villas. Then, as if out of nowhere, Sofia appeared in the distance, the tall buildings of its business district rising up against the towering silhouette of Mt. Vitosha, which looms directly above the city at a height of nearly 7,500 feet.

I walked from the central bus station down wide, tree-lined Maria Luisa Bvd., the main street in the city center. Passing the peeling yellow facades of 19th-century dome-topped hotels I crossed the Lions Bridge over the Vladaiska River and, dodging crowds and tram cars, began to search for a hotel. I settled on "Hotel Enny," where a single with shared bathrooms cost a little over $20. I checked into the last room available, the walls of which were smeared with crushed mosquitos; I should have taken this as a warning, but I didn't. When I tried to take a shower, I found that the water was freezing. I had a quick walk around the city center but decided to wait until the next day for a more extensive exploration and visit to the main sights. I found an interesting-looking place for dinner called "Dream House." It had a polished and modern Oriental interior and, amazingly enough, featured an all vegetarian menu. Normally I would have left but I decide to try it. The hot-and-sour soup and cheese and egg casserole were excellent. With a good local beer the meal cost less than $4.

The next morning (Tuesday) I woke up shortly after 6 AM. Mosquitos had been coming through the window and buzzing by my ears all throughout the night and I kept waking up and trying to swat them, usually only to smack myself in the face. Deciding that I would leave Hotel Enny before the 12 o'clock check-out I packed all my things and went out to explore for a while first (I decided to see if the hot water would work in the morning but it seemed to be completely kaput 24/7).

Walking down Maria Luisa I passed the old Banya Bashi Mosque, then continued on to Alexandrov street, where I made a left. Facing me was the gigantic former Communist Party House. On the lawn in front stood a row of international flags, including those of the UK and the U.S. Continuing on, I passed the former Royal Palace, now the city's Ethnographic Museum. I passed the elegant gold onion-domed St. Nikolai Russian Church, made a couple of turns, and stood face to face with Sofia's main attraction, the giant Aleksander Nevski Church. Built between 1892 and 1912, it's basement stores many national artifacts dating back to the 5th century. I didn't go to see these but did step into the church for a look around. Entry was free and there were only a handful of visitors.

After that I walked by Sofia University and around the Sofia City Garden before stopping in at a large diner-style restaurant called, of all things, "Happy Bar and Grill." The walls featured numerous U.S. movie and music-related posters. "Casablanca," "Natural Born Killers," Pink Floyd, Brittany Spears, and so on. The menu featured several assorted breakfasts which seemed to vary only with regard to how huge your portions of sausage, bacon or eggs would be relative to one another. The Irish Breakfast had more bacon than sausage while the German Breakfast had more sausage than bacon and fried eggs instead of scrambled. I don't even remember what I ordered, only that the whole meal tasted like it had been cooked in a huge vat of lard. I suspect that it was. I also suspect that each breakfast was the monthly caloric intake of each of the restaurant's waitresses, who are probably fired the moment they exceed 102 pounds.

I went back and checked out of Hotel Enny, then checked into a place called "Hostel Mostel." This was one of the best hostels I've come across and the best one I've been to in Europe so far. Run by a very friendly, informative Bulgarian couple of 30-somethings who clearly like what they do and enjoy playing host to ever-varying groups of (loud) young foreigners, the place had a comfortable family feel to it. For 10 Euros per night guests receive a bed, locker access, unlimited internet access, an all-you-can eat breakfast that is actually good (with meat, cheese, eggs), and a pasta dinner with a bottle of beer, not to mention a lot of useful advice about the city and country. I paid for my room, threw my things on my bed and made immediately for the fully-functional hot showers.

That afternoon I went to TsUM, another massive structure, this one a shopping mall featuring capitalism at its strangest in East Europe. Every other clothing store sold Addidas and Nike almost exclusively. A Nautica store nearly put me in shock: Apparently the Nautica brand must be a status symbol because the prices were absolutely insane. "Made in Honduras," say the labels on the T-shirts featuring the Nautica logo. "120 Levas," say the price tags (about $80). Of course I heard plenty about Russians paying exhorbitant amounts for Levi jeans during the 1980s but I didn't think a 15 or 20$ Nautica T-shirt made in Honduras could still be sold for this much anywhere on the planet. Perhaps I should get into the import-export business.

It rained heavily in the afternoon and I found myself in an Irish Pub having some spicy chicken-wings, reading, and trying to fathom the game of Cricket, which was being broadcast silently on the TV (I couldn't and didn't). The sound-system was playing the "Greatest Hits of Sting," and I got a big kick out of the experience of suddenly and unexpectedly hearing the 1984(ish) song "Russians" while eating hot-wings in an Irish Pub in Bulgaria. Granted that it would have been better to hear it in 1991 or 1992 during a brief, possibly overly-naive optimistic spell in world political events.

I had wanted to go on a day-trip to see the old Rila Monestary on Wednesday. The foul weather made me change my mind and stay inside, however. Apart from time spent walking in the drizzle and reading in the Bulgarian equivalent of a Starbucks, a place called "Onda" (cheaper and better, unsurprisingly), I worked on the blog and had some excellent food at a Bulgarian restaurant called Pri Yaffa (which translates to "From Yaffa" in Hebrew and received its name because the founder/owner used to import fresh fruit and vegetables shipped from Yaffa in British-controlled Palestine back in the 40s). While I was there I started talking to a Bulgarian-American guy, probably 35 or so, who was at a nearby table. He just moved back to Bulgaria after 22 years in the U.S. Following a career as a banker at Morgan Stanley, he quit to open a construction company in Bulgaria with his brother. He seemed both optimistic and pessimistic: Optimistic because development was on the rise but pessimistic because almost all of the development and land purchases of the best properties are being made by foreigners (particularly the British). When I asked him how he felt being back in Sofia after so much time, he shrugged: "You should have seen it in the 1980s," he told me. "It was cleaner then, things worked, the buildings were kept up. Of course, it was a communist regime, but..." He trailed off with another shrug.

Posted by Joshua on August 17, 2005 06:30 PM
Category: Bulgaria

In Sarajevo and heading to Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Could easily spend months in this country and its capital.

Posted by: Josh on August 23, 2005 05:43 AM

You know Josh, I've noticed that you spend a lot of time in Irish pubs. Are you planning on actually heading to Ireland on this trip?

Posted by: David on August 24, 2005 01:26 AM

What?!! Are people still reading this crap? I go to Irish pubs because they have beer. Beer is good. Cheap beer at fake Irish pubs is good and all the Ireland I can afford since the country got all filthy rich. Then there is that island thing they have going on. When they build a bridge to mainland Europe and I can take a 4 dollar chicken-bus there, maybe I'll go.

Posted by: Josh on August 24, 2005 04:23 PM

Not a fan of the chunnel, huh?

Posted by: David on August 25, 2005 10:04 AM

Chunnel: No.
Dubrovnik, Croatia: Yes!

Posted by: Josh on August 25, 2005 02:43 PM
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