Everyone asked me why I was going to Bulgaria. It was a mixture of weather, cost, culture and a sense of adventure. Bulgaria stood up to my expectations and more!
I arrived into Sofia in the afternoon and was immediately confronted with communist apartment buildings and a run down airport. Things weren’t looking good but that was about to change.
The centre of the city is a mix of different architectural styles and churches. I partook in what seems to be a late afternoon ritual, walking up and down the main shopping street. The weather was already holding up its part of the bargain.
I joined the evening free walking tour. We saw the main churches, Sveta Nedelia, Sveta Petka Samardzhiiska, Alexander Nevski, Sveti Nikolai Russian Church, Sveti Georgi Rotunda (4th Century), Sveti Sofia Church (how Sofia got its name), the Banya Bashi mosque and the mineral baths (I drank some of the miracle water) before going to see the president’s office and two very bored looking guards. I went for dinner at a student bar/restaurant with some people from the walking tour. A pint of beer was NZD$2.25!
The next day I went on a day trip to the Rila Monastery. The monastery is like the Bulgarian Jerusalem. It’s more than eight centuries old. It was seriously beautiful! It’s tucked into the mountains and surrounded by wilderness. As well as the extravagant church in the middle of the monastery which was covered in murals and filled with various gold gifted items, there was another smaller church down the hill by the graves of a lot of the monks. It was very peaceful by the running stream. I’d love to return again in winter when snow coats the ground.
Back in Sofia I went into the churches and mosque. I also went to the National art gallery and saw some Bulgarian art, there was a cocktail party happening in the main gallery, Bulgarians know how to party. Since the weather was so nice I got to spend some time sitting in the sun in the park and watching old men play chess.
After Sofia I spent two days in Plovdiv, Bulgarias second city. I took the bus and stayed in the old town. I wandered around the city checking out the roman ruins scattered around the city. There is a roman amphitheatre, roman stadium, roman forum and a roman odeon. Most of the ruins have only been uncovered recently, with the stadium running right under the main shopping street (and buildings), so at this point they have only uncovered a small portion. There doesn’t seem to be a large budget for this kind of thing.
The next morning I did the free walking tour then had lunch in Kapana with some of the others from the hostel. We then went inside the Dzhumaya mosque (built in the 15th C using the bricks from the old roman aqueduct) and sat at the cafe outside drinking tea and eating baklava. We had some entertainment when two men got into a fight.
I left early the next day to go to Veliko Tărnovo which was the capital during the second Bulgarian Republic and home to a rather stunning fortress. The city is built on the hills at a snake in the Yantra river and this makes for stunning views. There is a monument at the top of a hill on a horseshoe bend in the river with stunning views of the houses on the other side. There is a cute old town called Varosha that has shops and places to eat. I visited some churches, the church of St Peter and Paul (home to some stunning 14th – 17th century murals. They were damaged when the church partly collapsed from an earthquake in the 30’s but have been restored), church of Sveta Bogoroditsa (in Varosha, and can be seen from all around Asenova and the fortress), church of Sveti Dimitâr, Forty Martyrs Church and Church of the Assumption (the last three are in Asenova).
The Bulgarians are very proud of their yoghurt and cheese. The bacteria used to make yoghurt is even named to honour Bulgaria (lactobacillus bulgaricus) as they claim to have invented it. Cheese is on almost every dish and is a white feta like soft and salty cheese, served on fries, salads and pizzas, and in banitsa (pastry).
Despite enjoying the food, it was carb and cheese heavy, thankfully all the walking helped!
Next post will be about my four days in the UK where I traversed the country and tried to see as many friends as possible.