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Sofia, Bulgaria
 
May 12
The day, still in darkness, started with a change of countries. Before the last stop on the Greek side of the border there was a knock on the train compartment door; it was the conductor telling us to wake up and get passports ready. Fifteen minutes down the tracks the train clanked to a stop. It would have been nice to crawl back between the sheets and fall back to sleep in the still and quiet but we waited instead. A knock at the door by a big man (at least it wasn’t Bubba). He took our passports. Twenty or so minutes later, Sherrie looked out the window to see him on the platform with our passports in hand looking up and down the train like he had lost something. "Canada", she called out from the open third of the window. He swung around and looking relieved handed the passports up through the opening. A few minutes later the train started to move then came to another halt a mile or so further down the tracks.

Again another knock on the door and another uniformed officer and again our passports left our possession. It was a good half hour or more before they were returned with a Bulgarian entry, by train, stamp on them. The train rattled through a countryside of quilted fields and crops.

It was light but still early in the morning when we reached Sofia. An ATM in the station supplied us with some local currency and we made our way outside into the pleasant air already heating up with the morning sun.

Transit tickets for the tram were purchased at a kiosk by the bus stop before we made our way across a busy road to the tram tracks. Another kiosk stood nearby and we wondered if the tickets we bought were the right ones. We showed the lady behind the glass the tickets we had just purchased and asked, "Tram?"

She smiled and shook her head from side to side. Our instant reaction was that the other booth had sold us the wrong tickets and we would be required to pay again (memories of Bangkok).

"No?" we questioned shaking our heads from side to side like a two person chorus line.

"Da," she said while shaking her head and smiling. All of a sudden we recognized the smile on her face and laughed at ourselves for being the ignorant foreigners. She was right, we did have the correct tickets. Bulgarians are unique in that they move their heads from side to side (like our "no") when they mean "da" (yes) and nod up and down when they mean "ne" (no).

We got on the tram and punched our tickets in the little yellow metal box on the wall between window panes. There can be heavy fines for those who forget to do this to their tickets and shortly after boarding an inspector did check our tickets. We gazed out the window at the signs which held no meaning to us as Bulgaria, like Russia and Ukraine, use the Cyrillic alphabet. We looked at the simple map ripped from our guide book and made some guesses. The map showed the main road making a three sided jog around the central square. Using that as a reference point we counted blocks (do you count little side streets too?) made a guess and got off.

Terry got out the map (he is very good with maps) and searched for a landmark. Lonely Planet described "Yuzhen Park, home to a falling-apart monument and ...". We could see the monument and now knew where we were and where the road bent around the square.

 

It was now a matter of walking the streets with sidewalk tiles heaving in different directions and narrowing our search until we came to the Hotel Niky. We had hopes but no confirmed reservations. The lady at the reception desk was most pleasant and spoke English telling us clearly that they were unable to supply us with a room. She kindly phoned another of our hotel choices, booked a room and then gave us walking directions.

The main street was waking to morning. Shops began to open and people were purchasing their morning coffee and slice of pizza (be sure to squeeze zig-zag rows of ketchup on that!). Our walk took us back to the bend in the road around the square and a block and a half down a side street. At street level there was simply a glass door etched with a bagpiper and "Scotty’s" leading into a long hallway lined with old black and white pictures and a large black framed mirror. At the end of the hallway, another glass door and stairway. Reception was on the first floor.   [A note:  Scotty's  Boutique Hotel was the first gay hotel in Sofia.  It was clean, good value and welcomed "straights"]

We checked in, but at this early hour it was not possible to access our room.  They were kind enough to keep our backpacks while we went out to have some breakfast and explore Sofia.  

We made our way back to the square and just up the road had breakfast at the recommended "Happy’s". Pizza, with or without ketchup, would have been a better choice than the stale and tasteless meals we selected from the abbreviated Denny’s-style picture menu.

The Bulgarian capital, Sofia (meaning "holy God’s wisdom") claims to be one of the most ancient cities of Europe. Archaeologists continue to discover implements and tools from the stone, copper and bronze ages in this vicinity. Alexander the Great exclaimed "Serdia [Sofia] is my Rome".

We were right where the road bends around the square so it seemed natural to start our sightseeing with the square’s Sveta Nedelya Cathedral [82.6% of Bulgarian’s are Eastern Orthodox Christians while Islam is the next largest religion with 12.2% ] .

We entered the church to find a wedding in progress. The bride (in a long white "western style" dress) and the groom (in black tuxedo) both held candles which were linked by a swooping length of ribbon. They were standing in the centre of the church (not at the alter) with friends and family standing around them. The priest in red vestments placed red velvet and gold crowns upon their heads. The couple then walked around a centrepiece three times with the priest leading after which he removed the crowns, said some more words and then led the smiling couple from the church.

Outside there were take-a-number groups of wedding parties waiting and arriving as "our" newly married couple departed for their celebration party with many of the female guests carrying bouquets of flowers.

From that church we walked towards the Russian-style Aleksander Nevski Church. It was in our sight when a flea market slowed us down and we did some window shopping, noticing the postwar brass and 1936 Olympic souvenirs, old coins and stamps along with "normal" flea market finds. The Aleksander Nevski Patriarchal Cathedral is a memorial church built through the efforts of the whole Bulgarian people in memory of the thousands of Russian, Bulgarian, Ukranian, Moldavian, Finnish and Romanian soldiers who, from 1877 to 1878, laid down their lives for the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire.

On every tour list in every country ... in every country ... are the buildings of worship. They were the centre, and in most cases still, the social centre, centre of local faith as well as holders of historical artefacts and the community’s artistic wealth, therefore, there is a great deal of pride in showing them to visitors. Difficulties arise when a traveller is on the road for a long period of time, visiting many cities and villages – it can be a little overwhelming. But today we would take in one more, the Basilica of Hagia Sofia.

It is Saturday, and clearly the day of choice to be married. We watched as the bride and groom stood arm in arm in the doorway, they looked comfortable (after the groom repositioned his stocking garter) and ready to step forward into holy matrimony. The groom, a Scot in his mid-fifties was dressed in Scottish garb complete with kilt and the bride, a little younger, was dressed in full length white gown with two preschool and one teenage girl carrying the train. As with the other couple we saw wed, they carried two candles joined by a ribbon and walked to the centre of the church where their family and friends stood.

   
 

Leaving the churches behind us, we ventured further and passed the massive "Party House", a building which had been headquarters for the communist bureaucrats. Across the street beside a fountain, some people were setting up for a photo shoot. We stopped to watch as an actor in red serge was being prepared with touches to makeup and hair, on top of which they plopped a tall beaver hat and then sprayed his face to simulate perspiration. The commercial was for Schweppes which he was to find cool and refreshing. From the sidelines he was being encouraged with lines like, "make love to the bottle" and "lift your eyebrow like you did in auditions". It will be interesting to see if we every see the ads.

We passed the President’s Building with its four guards standing duty. We would come back for the changing of the guards in a half hour. Meantime a walk through the arched tunnel would bring us to the little round church of St. Georgi (George).

 

St. Georgi Rotunda Church is the oldest architectural monument in the city of Sofia in good repair, intact to the roof. Dated as far back as the Roman Empire, in the 4th century, it was always a religious building. It underwent numerous reconstructions during the middle ages (9th-14th). In the 16th century it was transformed into a mosque by the Turks. Archeologists have found five layers of frescoes (wall paintings), – the earliest being from the 6th century when the Rotunda was Christian. Although the building was stricken by time, neglect and WWII, it survived and now stands as a model of ancient construction and Christian fine art.

 

Emerging back through the tunnel we met an Orthodox priest, dressed in the usual long black robes, and his family. He was showing his youngest son the guards standing at the door. In the Orthodox church priests must marry in order to fully understand the daily emotions and struggles experienced by their parishioners.

They left before the changing of the guards, but we stuck around and were soon viewing the high stepping spectacle.

No pom-pom shoes here. These guards wore calf-high black boots (the lead fellow even had spurs) over black riding pants with a white stripe down each side. The white jackets were belted in red with a red tassel hanging from the buckle, while the rest of the jacket was decorated with lots of red braid - front and back. The hat, a wide band of white (appeared to be fur) with the skull portion filled in by red material with a white cross, supported a very tall black and white feather secured near the front. Their high steps (much higher than picture shows) did not seem to attract much attention. Perhaps it was the time of day.

Heading back towards our hotel along one of the busier streets, we found the little church of St. Petka Samardjiska caught in traffic. It dates back to the 4th century and now can be seen rising out amidst the traffic-filled avenues which pass by just below roof line. To see its well preserved frescos, one has to venture down and through a tunnel.

 
 

Our next fascinating find was where the locals fill their bottles with spring water. There are about 500 mineral water deposits in Bulgaria with more than 1600 springs. These are mostly located in the foothills of mountains and are the mainstay of spa resorts. This one in the heart of Sofia is a busy place. From 1.5 metre high walls spigots continually pour out spring water into numerous sinks and at every unplugged sink people were either rinsing out their bottles or filling them up. We were very thirsty from our walk around and looked forward to cool refreshing slurps. We were not carrying bottles so we used our hands. When the water fell into our cupped hands we were very surprised to find it quite hot. The water has a clean, clear, soft taste and we drank our fill.

   

We had seen a line-up at a little bread stand near our hotel as we left and on our return, we could see he was still doing a steady business. We brought two bagel sized rings. The crusts were very hard and the insides tough, two aspects which the locals must like in their bread.

Our room was ready, we got settled in and took advantage of the little shaded balcony with its table and chairs and WiFi connection.

Around dinner time we ventured out in search of food. We passed by McDonald’s with their horizontal sign spelt the familiar way and a vertical sign spelt "Makgohangc".

 
 

After some searching along heaved tiled sidewalks we found the recommended "Divaka" restaurant. The place was busy. They showed us to a non-smoking section. It had a number of tables ... all empty. Not wanting to be isolated from people watching we asked for a table in smoking. Terry had the traditional stew, while Sherrie opted for grilled trout with salad. Both were very good.

On our way back to the hotel we found one of the major streets blocked off from traffic (except for trolley cars) and being used by the locals for walking and eating as cafe’s stretched their seating out onto the street.. The skies were clear, all but for a few clouds, which were busy catching purple and peach sunset rays. A lone fellow blew on a bugle and filled the warm air with music. We joined the locals for a stroll.

 
 

On the corner where we turned from the square onto our hotel’s street stands an impressive building. We hadn’t realized that it was a big indoor market. We decided to head there for breakfast in the morning.

May 13

Inside, the market building was much more modern than we had expected.

In the centre was a place to sit and have a drink or small snack. We wandered around looking at the different booths on the main floor and upstairs (which had fast food outlets). We sat at a table in the middle and ordered orange juice and coffee, then went to one of the many bakeries and brought back our purchases to enjoy with our drinks (like others were doing). For our train trip, we purchased some fruit and water then caught the bus to the station and boarded the train to Plovdiv. The locals call it "The Plov".

 
 
click here to continue May 13 and Plovdiv, Bulgaria  ... 
     

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