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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  

Bulgarian Flag BULGARIA


November 13. SOFIA  Our hostel had a small downside which was the lack of heat at night.  They brought a big heater in to warm up the room before we went to bed but then took it out.  The heat dissipated and without a sleeping bag I found myself pretty cold and heaping my clothes on top of me in the middle of the night.  So, I slept in a bit in the morning.  They did a really nice job with breakfast in the morning.  There was limitless coffee and tea to drink along with fresh fruit and nice bread and jam.

We ended waiting around in the morning for him to return so we could pay our bill and so we didn't end up leaving until nearly noon.  I was pretty tired so I didn't mind.  It was a nice day and much warmer weather than Brasov.  The city was surprisingly clean and well maintained.  After Bucharest we had our expectations set low but downtown Sofia was very pleasant and provided a great day of walking around.  

We stopped at a bank first to change money and then Lesley and I found a cafe to hang out in while Rob went to search out the National Bank.  We found a cafe inside the TsUM shopping center that stood on the corner of Sofia's two main thoroughfares. In the center of the intersection was a subterranean walkway and shopping area, out of which protruded the small 14th century Sveta Petka Samardjiiska Church.  Modern developments had encroached around the beautiful little church but it hadn't moved and was dug out down to its foundation to reveal the level at which the city stood during her time.  Cars zipped past her roof on either side and shops stretched in different directions into the underground tunnels but in spite of all of this surrounding chaos it was still retained its dignity and relative peace. 

The shopping center was a modern inside and the cafe we found served up an excellent selection of pies.  We were just breaking into a couple of elaborate pecan pies when Rob returned to say that the bank was currently closed but that a large demonstration was going on outside.  Sure enough the wide boulevard that stretched east to the front of the President's Building had filled with people.  The street had separated into two halves with a green promenade in the middle.  An angel stood on a tall column at one, facing the President's Building at the other. The protesters were an unhappy bunch carrying banners and images of people being hung in effigy.  They were headed up by a band of traditional dancers that wore animal skins and masks with large cow bells clustered at their waists.  We couldn't tell what all of the fuss was about but later learned from our hostel owner that people were disgruntled over the new national budget and had come out to protest.  We noticed a police car near the procession that was a Mercedes Z3 and thought that might have something to do with the budget complaints. Apparently they used cars seized from criminals for the police force but I had to wonder if it wouldn't be more practical to sell off the Z3s and buy more affordable and durable cars for the police.    

The road split at the President's Building and on the southern street, just across from where the mob was assembled, stood the National Bank. We returned with Rob when it opened after lunch and they were all set up with sealed sets of un-circulated bills available at the cashier's windows.  Back across the street, behind the President's Building, we visited the National Art Gallery and the Ethnographic Museum.  The highlight of the three exhibits in the Art Gallery was an exhibit on Bulgarian architects.  It wasn't more than a series of posters on the walls but it showed an extensive array of fantastic modern buildings from around the world done by Bulgarian architects.  It put some perspective on the impact that this country of just under 8 million people had had on the world of modern architecture and I am sure very few people that passed by this buildings in Europe, Los Angeles, New York, etc. and ever knew or thought about where the architects had come from.   The Ethnographic Museum was a small exhibit of mostly different traditional costumes, many of which were actually from what is now Macedonia, but just outside the entrance was a gift shop and artisan who made replicas of 14th century Bulgarian jewelry and decorative pieces out of silver filigree.  They were really exceptional.

From the museums we cut back across the street to the Sofia City Garden Park to look for a post office.  Along side the park stood a red and white neoclassical National Theater.  We peeked inside to look into performances but nothing fit into our short schedule.  The weather had turned overcast and was getting chilly but there were still a number of people in the park playing chess with one another.  When I asked one man if they did it all winter long he said that they went into cafes during the winter.  We eventually did find the post office and succeeded in getting our post cards mailed.

Returning to the same street where the museums stood we came upon the St. Nikolai Russian Church, very typical in its Russian style with golden onion domes.  When I went to peek inside I was caught by a young gypsy girl begging for money.  When I waived her away and she became snotty and tried to convince me that the church door was closed and get me to go in the wrong direction.  It was hard to have much affection for the gypsies you see on the streets.  In front of the shopping center we had watched a mother push her little girl, maybe three years old at the most, out to beg from people while she hid around the corner.  The poor little thing tried to be persistent but kept looking back over its shoulder, probably seeking approval or to see if her mother was actually watching.  

The interior of the Russian Church wasn't very noteworthy but the location of the church, in the central downtown area, gave some indication of the position Russia held in the minds of Bulgarians.  Having fought off the Turks back at the end of the 1800s the Bulgarians still feel some indebtedness to Russia. In WWI they ultimately bent to the Nazis and declared war on Britain and France but never declared war on Russia.   Under the Soviet Bloc Bulgaria was actually one of the more prosperous countries and were the first to re-elect the Communists after the fall of the Soviet Union.  Today, however, we are told they are not a favored as they used to be but are still considered a friend of Bulgaria. 

From the Russian Church we cut over a block to visit the imposingly massive Aleksander Nevsky Church, flanked in the front by two smaller churches.  Leading up to the church we passed through a lively little street market selling everything from religious icons to random antiques.  The church stood in the middle of a giant traffic circle with green covering the surrounding blocks.  It was very dark inside and the paintings were suffering from years of candles smoke but it looked like it was undergoing some restoration work.  The Church was built back between 1892 and 1912 as a memorial to the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died fighting for Bulgaria's independence during the Russian-Turkish war.

From the church we cut back over until we reached the National Assembly building and then turned right to return down the street that we had started on.  When we had reached the Russian Church again we made another right turn and passed back in front of the Aleksander Nevsky Church to find the Opera House.  It was a more modern design and not very interesting in itself and, unfortunately, also did not have any performances going during our time in Sofia.  Returning to the main street through town we stopped at a pharmacy to get a cure for Lesley's ailing stomach and stock up on some things.  It was a tiny pharmacy but each time we bought something we then saw something else that we needed.  These numerous little pharmacies served the purpose of our large drug stores and managed to squeeze everything from soap and shampoo to tooth brushes and razors in along with their stock of medications.

We made a stop at the little old Sveta Petka Samardjiiska Church, submerged in the intersection, on our way back to the hostel.  Its foundations even revealed stone laid there during Roman times and its small chapel was brightly decorated with frescos.  Not all of them remained, of course, but it was a delightfully peaceful and spiritual place to sit, the sounds of traffic almost entirely muffled by the thick walls. 

Rob and I stopped at one more fine church that sat in a bulge on the eastern side of the bus road, the Sveta Nedelya Cathedral.  The cathedral was built between 1856-63 and its ornate interior was glittering with candles as people were coming and going, probably on their way home from work, to light a candle and say prayers.  It was just a short walk from there back to the hostel.

Our Hostel Mostel was a lively place with an interesting group of travelers.   People lounged in the breakfast room and took turns on the computers to use the Internet.  The owners casually mingled amongst everyone.  Rob started chatting with a young Canadian-Taiwanese woman, Angela, who was traveling by herself.  Like us, she was traveling on to Macedonia and had gotten us alarmed when she found out that she needed a visa to enter the country.  We knew that to be true from a Canadian fellow we met at the hostel in Brasov who had gone all of the way to the Greek-Macedonian border to be turned away.  He had read that he could get his visa at the border but the rules had changed and had to wait all day for the train returning to Greece arrived.   But Angela had been told by the Macedonian embassy in Sofia that everyone needed a visa to enter, even Americans and Kiwis.  We did some research online to see if we could verify if that was true and put up a posting on the LP Thorntree.  

The hostel people had recommended a nearby tavern for dinner but when Lesley, Rob and I arrived it was fully booked out for some event.  Instead we found a more casual place down the street and had a good meal with a nice bottle of wine.  It was always best to go with the places that were full of local people and this one had a steady stream of customers.  

Our roommates had turned over in the dorm room and we now had a single Aussie fellow instead of the couple that had occupied the bunk across from us the night before.  This guy was perhaps the only person we met during our trip that was more loaded down with stuff than us.  Most people were on shorter trips so we decided we weren't actually doing that badly but compared to this fellow we were traveling light!  He was on a mission to see how cheaply he could make his trip and was toting his own water heater for coffee, a laptop, and a myriad of other supplies.  Of course this meant he had to tote everything on a pulley cart.  Conveniences or not there was a limit to what I would tote around.  I have always felt that making trips with just a backpack helped you to really discern between your needs and your wants.

SLOVENIA Ljubljana Oct 7-8 Piran Oct 9-12

CROATIA Istra Peninsula Oct 13 Split Oct 14-15 Hvar Oct 16-18 Korcula Oct 19 Dubrovnik Oct 20-29


BOSNIA Sarajevo Oct 30 Oct 30 Nov 1

SERBIA Belgrade Nov 2-3

ROMANIA Bucharest Nov 4 Suceava Nov 5 Nov 6 Cluj Napoca Nov 7 Sighisoara Nov 8-9 Brasov Nov 10 Nov 11

BULGARIA Sofia Nov 12 Nov 13 Nov 14

MACEDONIA Lake Ohrid Nov 15 Nov 16-17

KOSOVO Prishtine Nov 18 Nov 19 Nov 20 Nov 21

GREECE Thessaloniki Nov 22 Athens Nov 23 Nov 24