22.12.2008 - 24.12.2008 0 °C
With the trains to Thessalonika all jammed up and no information as to whether I could get one on from there, a bus seemed my only option until I started to wonder how much it would be to fly. $250, it turned out. Sure, it was on Air Bulgaria (not bad actually and they gave me a nice breakfast) and we had to take a bus out to the far reaches of Athens airport to find the plane (and in from the far reaches of Sofia airport) but I did in under two hours what was going to take at least 17 hours (not that getting places fast is the point of the trip).
Getting into town was no problem (although buying a bus ticket for my luggage was a first); then, if course, I got lost finding my hostel. What should have been a simple twenty minute walk was more like two hours of frustration. I had a little more to come: I had the idea of checking out the Odeon Cinema which has a programme of arthouse films and is the centre of the Bulgarian film archive. I had a map and directions, but never found it - instead I walked out through a very cold looking forest to the edge of town, the very end of a tram line. No matter - there was a wee supermarket there which sold me an amazing piece of freshly cooked meat I could gnaw on while I waited for the tram, then took a ride back through the forest - kind of spooky in the dark frozen forest.
Sofia has a bit of a reputation as a place not worth bothering with. My guidebook says "with its drab suburbs and crumbling old buildings Sofia can appear an uninspiring place to first time visitors". Sure, you can find drab bits quite easily, just look at this:
but that photo was taken from the same spot as this one:
a very nice mall where I find lots of posh clothes (and people). Then there is this:
which was the former one stop Department Store
run by the former communist government where you could buy bugger all and had to queue for hours to do so. Now it has everything you could want, and there's another similar place across the road which has a great cafe, right in the centre where you can have a beer and people-watch for hours.
Speaking of the Communist Party, here is its headquarters:
now used as government offices. Directly opposite (and forming a quadrant with the Sheraton) is the Presidency. I managed to wander past just as the guard was changing:
I was amused - they did a very formal hand over and frog marched around the square a couple of times but then when they were done, instead of marching into the building, they basically broke formation and ambled in. I half expected them to stop for a smoke!
Inside the Quadrant formed by the Presidency and Sheraton is a very old church, it is the St Georgi Rotunda Church, dating right back to 4th century Roman Emperor, Constantine and is claimed to be the oldest building in Sofia:
[need details ex laptop].
I thought the inner city has much to offer; I only had a couple of days to wander it but came away thinking there was much more to do. Of course, it was nice to be away from the heat of Singapore - it was more like zero degrees and one of the first things I did was find shops that would sell me a nice coat (with a ridiculous fake fur fringe) a hat and gloves. But I found that just by moving about, I'd stay warm enough and then I coud go inside for a coffee and let the warmth gradually seep in - its a delicious feeling.
A couple of standout locations were the People's Park and National Art Gallery:
(to the right in the above picture is a great old cafe - leather armchairs, wooden bar, a few people having in depth conversations, an interesting looking back room with a heavily decorated ceiling, one of a number of cafes I'd happily spend time in again (but the production line cafeteria in which I had lunch? Not so much.)
and the Alexander Nevsky Bulgarian Orthodox Cathedral
It looks and feels really old, so it came as a surprise that it was built in the first decade of the twentieth century, to celebrate the release from the Ottoman rule (and commemorate those who died in the conflict). Going inside was a revelation - it seemed so much bigger than it looked! Nearby is the Russian Church, built at the same time:
to thank the Russians for their effort in freeing Bulgaria.
I spent a fair while in the Art Gallery. It had a floor virtually devoted to a single 19th century Bulgarian painter (whose name escapes me and whose work was largely forgettable). Upstairs was better - basically a history of Bulgarian art under the label "national revival" i.e. post Ottoman rule. Not allowed to take photos in the Art Gallery, and they were very attentive in making sure we didn't. I became convinced that one of the attendants was a witch - she was dressed entirely in black and very thin and seemed afraid of the light: she spent all the time I was in her galleries staring into the corner of the room, but then whenever I moved, she'd scuttle off and be there in front of me. Up on the top floor was a whole bunch of sculptures, mainly busts of people who meant nothing to me, but I did kind of like this piece (only one attendant for the whole floor, so I got away with it):
Back on the ground floor was the work of Angela Mtukova which I also found fascinating - largely based on mirrors, she had a few pieces involving plaster casts of men either leaping into or out of a mirror.
The first night there, I didn't even go out: I was staying in what has been voted the best hostel in the world and enjoying the experience. The staff made a real effort to include people in the life of the hostel, cooked us all dinner and gave us a beer each as part of the package. So a very social space. The next night, however, I needed to try some Bulgarian food so dined on "chicken and mushroom in sour sauce" at a nearby restaurant. As I was returning to the hostel it began to snow lightly, suggesting I might get to have a white Christmas after all.