Some of my friends spent last Easter in their home countries. Some extended the four-day weekend into a full-scale holiday. Those with children mostly stayed in London for some quality family time. Others were late to book anything and marinated in London out of necessity. Everybody made their own choice.
And I have spent my Easter in Bulgaria.
When I first told my Romanian colleague where I was going, her reaction went along the following sequence: (1) she assumed I was joking; (2) she asked if it was the result of an adjacent business trip; (3) she laughed a lot and (4) she declared I was insane.
Why Bulgaria? I have to admit the reasons were indeed rather lame. Back in October 2009, I methodically checked a few Easter flights out of London. Many interesting destinations were beginning to look overpriced – when I spotted one more or less affordable option. Sofia in Bulgaria could be reached for a bargain 100 pounds using the Wizzair-easyJet combination. That’s not money at all, I said to myself as I duly booked the flights. All come to naught, I might even drop the tickets in case I change my mind later.
Which didn’t happen – and, on Good Friday 2010, I found myself heading to Sofia to spend my Orthodox Easter in an Orthodox country for the very first time ever. I just love when the two Easters overlap! They should totally do so every year.
The adventures began as soon as we had touched the ground in Sofia. The passport control lady let everyone else sprint by her but kept me waiting for at least five minutes before she asked, in a suspicious tone, if I had come to Bulgaria alone? What was the purpose of my trip? I bit my tongue not to cheek out with some naughty joke involving a named Russian female. Best to keep this kind of humour for truly sarcastic nations. Finally the zealous female refused to believe the passport was mine and asked for another ID. I could only smile as I produced a quasi-diplomatic work ID issued by one of Bulgaria’s largest investors. Sweet dreams, passport lady.
It was 1:30am, and I caught a taxi in front of the airport terminal to take me to the hotel. Albeit barely speaking English, the driver was extremely chatty. I tried to explain where I was from, mixing up my Russian and Serbian to blend the vocabulary and pronunciation, respectively, into something Bulgaresque. The guy laughed away. “Разбираш сръбски, разбираш руски!” he said “Чиста македонка!” (“You understand Serbian, you understand Russian! Real Macedonian!”). For the second time that early morning I had to show my passport – this time to convince the cheerful driver of my utter lack of Balkan roots. In the heat of the discussion, my hotel emerged out of a whirlpool of dimly lit Sofian streets. I bid farewell to my newest friend and entered the hotel.
The hotel was meant to be a central yet cheap option – and it was definitely cheap. The receptionist was so eager to charge me for the entire stay at 2am, I didn’t have the heart to refuse. I guess it couldn’t have waited till morning. Finally the card machine showed some signs of life after 10 minutes, and I could go to sleep. It was my first night in Sofia.
“Where am I?”
That was my first thought upon awakening. Trams were squealing outside and the sun was doing its best to penetrate the room through little belts of light not covered by the curtains. The Sofia exploration was about to begin!
And, after about 30 minutes of waiting for my breakfast and being told the “coffee machine was broken, would you care for some tea instead”, the adventure began for real.
I spent my first five hours in Sofia half-following, half-deviating from the Lonely Planet recommended walking route. The non-traditional Sofia highlights for me were: the Ladies Market selling anything you’d wish for, spare parts included (plenty of men there though, so must be a misnomer); the Latvian Consulate (next to St. Nedelya Church and recognised by little more than a Latvian flag outside); FloCafe (I thought they only had them in Greece!), meeting fellow Russians next to, predictably, the Russian Church and bumping into Greeks on every corner. The more traditional highlights were, as pictured below (view full Sofia Flickr photoset):
Aleksander Nevski Memorial Church: Borisova Gradina park: Vitosha pedestrian boulevard:Vitosha set the scene for a funny incident. After I had taken the above shot, a policeman approached me. Concerned, he asked if he was in any of my pictures. It is apparently illegal to photograph police or military officials in Bulgaria. During my slideshow demonstration, he spotted himself in the bottom right corner of the picture above. “Изтрите” (“Delete”), the policeman said. I rioted. Not even the strongest zoom would make the much respected civil servant visible. The fact that he had some people walking in front of him made it even less possible. “Изтрите”, he insisted. “But the photo is nice!” I said, expecting to hear a string of solid arguments in response. Suddenly, he smiled, said “Добре” (“Okay”) and walked away. Huh!? I stood there for another minute in anticipation of, at the very least, immediate arrest and deportation back to the UK, but it looked like the gentleman had been flattered enough to let me off. Oh well, добре indeed!
Overall, Sofia slowly grew on me. My initial impression of a “Belgrade desperately trying to be Skopje” was eventually overturned. And when I saw a Starbucks coffee shop on the corner of Vasil Levski Boulevard, I truly proclaimed Sofia a self-standing, charming little capital in its own right! Not even has Belgrade got a Starbucks. Respect!
Lost on the mountain
My next stop was Vitosha Nature Park situated on and around Vitosha Mountain to the southwest of Sofia. After wandering purposelessly around where a bus was allegedly to depart for Vitosha as per Lonely Planet guide (none came), I hopped on Tram 5 instead. Within 20 minutes, I had reached the Knyazhevo district of Sofia and began my ascent – Vitosha is composed of a series of peaks of varying height with trails in-between. My great plan was to reach one of the park’s most popular spots, Zlatni Mostove. I was singing as I made my way up, jumping over spring-like water streams (not always very successfully) and duly greeting passers-by. It was going to be a highly triumphant experience.
I was singing up until I had realised I had been hiking uphill relentlessly for two hours straight. Having spent the entire day on my feet, I could no longer confirm they were actually there without a visual examination. The time was soon approaching 7pm. Several scenarios ran through my head, of which by far the least dramatic one involved being stuck on a mountain through Easter night, without a glimpse of light or company. I felt the air starting to cool down in anticipation of the night, too, and shivered.
It was clearly time to go back, but the idea of waddling through the same fresh water streams in close darkness didn’t quite appeal. After glancing at a rough map, I continued walking along the paved road, hoping to spot a turn left which would zigzag me back into Knyazhevo.
Just after catching a truly spectacular sunset through a thick forest, I had finally found a dirt road leading left, and turned onto it. I walked on and on. It was getting quite dark; at one point I started running to speed up – but quickly gave up that idea after nearly rolling downhill. Slowly but surely, Anna, I kept saying to myself.
But the darn little road refused to be the correct one. It kept hugging the mountain gently, not giving up more than a fraction of a slope at a time. I could see the lights far below and heard the traffic zooming back and forth. My hands were cold as ice; tears were building up in the corners of my eyes – but I knew it was going to be fine. It always is in the end!
Finally I had hit some alleviated settlement, then a garden path downhill, then – finally! – a proper paved road down to the highway. I had landed a couple of kilometres west of my starting point and walked, in a life-saving fashion, for another 30 minutes alongside the roaring cars and trucks in utter darkness. Tram 5 emerged suddenly from around the corner, I ran towards the beeping doors, and collapsed into the seat. I had been saved.
Needless to say I had absolutely no strength for the Easter church service that night.
Plovdiv, here I come!
Христос Воскресе! The alarm went off at 7:30am the morning after – it was my second day in Bulgaria. The plan was to visit the country’s second largest city of Plovdiv, famous for its Roman ruins and Parisian spirit. As I walked to the bus / train stations, I found Sofia utterly deserted early on an Easter Sunday. My prayers for some food (I had decided to give hotel breakfast a skip) were answered as I picked up a kind of a cheese pie from the only shop open along a 25-minute walk. Perhaps it was because the shop boasted a prime location bang next to a nightclub – still going strong, judging by the noise. Or music, as they’d probably call it.
The train station turned out to have been built in the best traditions of communism – except perhaps the “gun store” I had spotted inside with a corner of an eye. As I had been too carried away figuring out where to go, I had narrowly missed the Plovdiv train. The bus was an easy alternative. Or not as easy, given the sheer number of bus-operating companies populating the main building of Sofia’s newly built, shining bus station. I finally found a “Vitosha Express” booth and loaded myself onto a Plovdiv bus.
Just before heading off, I became a witness to a classic “seat number incident”. Some Bulgarian bus companies print a seat number on passengers’ tickets to create a kind of preferential seating order during peak times. Most passengers, however, including yours truly, were making themselves comfortable at random seats. It all came to an end when a Greek lady started exploding, in a mixture of Greek and Bulgarian, at some Bulgarian gentleman occupying her seat. The bus driver stopped and waited in the middle of the road for about ten minutes as the entire bus immersed in a heated debate about who should sit in whose seats, and should we even sit at all, and should seats even be numbered, etc. The result was as abrupt as the beginning. The Bulgarian character refused to let his Greek counterpart into her legitimate seat, she settled in another one – and we all travelled on happily to Plovdiv.
Plovdiv was beautiful. The sun was shining, not obstructed by a single cloud in the sky. Pretty little streets sprouted around the famous Roman ruins. The Bulgarian man by the entrance to the sight boasted fluency in my mother tongue and, hearing I was an ethnic Russian, refused to take any money for the entry (“Денег не беру!”). I guess it was a sort of an Easter gift to a fellow Orthodox.
I spent the day doing little more than zooming around town, resting on benches in the shade, climbing all the hills I could locate on my inner radar and taking photos. A day well spent! View full Plovdiv Flickr photoset. Roman ruins: Traditional Bulgarian Troyan pottery: Plovdiv’s Train Station:Exhausted after another day of uninterrupted walking, I left for Sofia by train. Just before leaving, I discovered my much loved boza drink sold at a stall nearby. Made of wheat, it’s peculiar to the region and either loved or hated by those who know it. I belong firmly in the first club, and grabbed my bottle like a hungry baby. The content wasn’t as good as the draught version I had previously tried in Skopje – but, with both nostrils pressed together, not even the most devoted connoisseur could tell the difference.
Before going to sleep back in Sofia, I spent some time consuming local “fast food” delicacies and deciding on my next day’s destination. As much as I had wanted to visit Veliko Tarnovo and Belogradchik, they were both too far for a day trip. Blagoevgrad? Many of my friends had studied there, but perhaps I wouldn’t bother sitting through a 2-hour journey to see a large concrete square with an old fountain. The Rila Monastery involved some draconic public transport connections for a non-driver. Staying in Sofia would have been a repetition. Decisions, decisions!
The last day
The next morning saw me walking to the same old bus station. Or, in fact, a different bus station right next to the new one. Not sure whence the separation – my theory is that the old, about-to-fall-apart buses are only allowed in the former. The bus I was taking to – ta-da! – Koprivshtitsa perfectly fit that subtle definition.
Koprivshtitsa (Копривщица) is a small museum town lost in the mountains about 110 kilometres west of Sofia. That is where they say the April Uprising against the Turks began back in 1876. The town is known for its authentic Bulgarian architecture associated with the National Revival, as well as for its folk music festivals. Over 300 national monuments fill up the traditional Bulgarian village setting. In short, a promising day-trip!
Despite its vintage looks, the little bus could still run fast. For the absence of seat numbers, the famous incident had safely been avoided, too. I made sure to walk every tiny street in Koprivshtitsa during the three hours I had to spare (see full Flickr photoset for Koprivshtitsa). The place looked very cosy and – despite its modest 3,000 population – oversupplied with guesthouses. The tiled roofs and overall atmosphere reminded me greatly of Poroia villages in the Eastern part of Greek Macedonia. Next time it’ll probably be a good idea to spend a night in a traditional Bulgarian style – for now though, it was time to return to Sofia. A typical building in Koprivshtitsa:I survived the shaky ride back to the capital, walked to the hotel to pick up my skinny bag – I am a self-declared 10-kg travelling professional – and caught Bus 84 for the airport. The final incident involved a young Roma man hopping on the same bus and stirring everyone around by randomly making high-pitched sounds and waving his hand in front of his nose as if he didn’t like the smell. I’m not particularly familiar with Roma people – somehow we have missed them in Latvia, or not too much, actually – so I could only guess that the poor guy couldn’t have received adequate attention being a child in a classic Roma family. After he had got up to leave, I could not help noticing the smell couldn’t have been anything but his own.
During my outbound passport control, I was kept for another five-odd minutes answering random questions of varying degrees of inappropriateness. The officer looked through each and every one of my passport’s stamps. Four pages covered with various ex-Yugoslavian ones got him visibly worried; the Albanian ones sent his eyebrows flying right up – but the Russian visa finally convinced him to forgive all my sins. I was let through. Is it my Latvian passport, my Russian surname or the fact that I was flying to London? We may never find out.
Overall, it was a good trip, during which I had a chance to educate myself about another Balkan country. Somehow though I got tired of customer service a-la Soviet Union – and of bumping into painfully familiar surroundings. Here’s next year’s Easter plan: fly into the Greek island of Chios, explore it, cross over by boat to Turkish Çeşme, travel to Izmir (formerly known as Smyrni) and fly back to London. Stay tuned!