Friday, March 4, 2011


Six-hour walking tour. What better way to get acquainted with the Bulgarian capitol city than by foot. In temperatures hovering around freezing we strolled by the Presidential offices, the statue of Saint Sophia, old guys peddling communist-era antiques on the street and myriad other sites. It is a beautiful city, and very walkable, but when it is so cold it should probably be broken up into a two-day affair.

One leva tea at McDonald's. Given the fact that we have gone from a hot African summer to the cold Balkan winter in a matter of weeks, the temps are a bit jolting, even for a couple of weather-worn Minnesotans. As such, it is great to be able to duck into the familiar Golden Arches for some hot tea, a place to warm up and a clean bathroom...all for less than a buck.

Fairly priced, tasty, food. It isn't Buenos Aires, but the food in Sofia is pretty darn good, and definitely cheaper than most places with similar fare. Besides an amazing home-cooked vegetarian meal, we also enjoyed delightful pastas, soups, pizzas and pastries while on the town.

Impromptu cultural performance. After the aforementioned homemade meal our Couchsurfing hosts and their friend ducked out of the kitchen, threw on some traditional garb and entertained Heidi and I with instruments, singing and dance of their heritage.

Affable Hosts from Couchsurfing. I continue to be amazed by the hospitality of people on Couchsurfing and Niki and Eli were no exception. They invited us into their home, made us feel very welcome, and treated us to a number of meals. They went above and beyond with the cultural performance, drive to the mountain and paying for our final meal in Sofia before it was even served (in order to avoid our protests).

Bus-riding scofflaw. On Sofia public transport you are required to have a validated ticket, which is purchased before boarding and validated by an archaic hole-punch-like device on the bus. While removing my ticket from the punch it ripped. Minutes later two ladies boarded to make sure nobody was trying to cheat the system. Well, they either didn't buy, or didn't care for, my story (and I'm sure the language barrier didn't help). So, I had to shell out a 10 leva fine right then and there.

Unpleasant Pumpkin. While in Ukraine I had tasted some warm baked pumpkin, skin on with brown sugar. It was delightful. While on our walk I spied something similar, on the street, which roughly translated to "sweet pumpkin" from the cyrillic words I recognized. Heidi wanted a chunk so we bought it and gave it a try. Disgusting! Not only was it not sweet but ice cold. The picture says it all...

Lovely mountain hike. Our Couchsurfing hosts drove us up to the Vitosha Mountains, which are just on the outskirts of the bustling city. After a short drive we got out and had a nice hike in the alpine setting. The trail was a bit slick, from all of the other hikers compacting the snow, but the sun was shining and the scenery beautiful. By the time we turned around to head back down we were all warm and removing some of our layers.

Great street exchange rates. Twice during our walk through Sofia, some guy approached us with a fishy story about being from the Czech Republic and wanting to buy foreign currency at a great rate...much better than that being offered by the legitimate outlets. I know it was a scam and figured he was handling counterfeit notes. I refused his offer, first politely and later more sternly. When I relayed the experience to a hostel employee I learned that the scam was giving foreigners old leva, which are now worthless. Sadly, I was told, others weren't so keen and fell for the scam.

A long wait for the police. On our way down Vitosha Mountain the tires on our hosts' little Mitsubishi lost traction on a curve and we had a low impact crash into a vehicle heading in the opposite direction. Luckily, nobody was hurt but we did have to wait for police to come and fill out a report. By the time we left, more than two hours later, we were all thoroughly chilled to the bone.

Rila Monastery. Originally built in the 10th century, this beautiful monastic residence is tucked away in the Rila Mountains, more than two hours from Sofia. It was built by the students of St. Ivan of Rila who lived in a nearby cave, with no possessions, for many years. The church has numerous vivid depictions of the book of Revelations. The setting is serene and breathtaking.

In search of a skating rink. Heidi and I had hoped to complete our day-tour of Sofia with a nice time on the outdoor skating rink in a park on the outskirts of the city center. We found the park easily enough, but we had no idea that the park was so huge. By the time we found the sheet of ice, more than an hour later, we were cold, miserable and in no mood to skate.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Planned exactly 100 years (to the day) before my birth, this is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox churches in the world, with the capacity to hold 10,000 people inside. It is adorned with beautiful murals and an impressive iconostasis (which we weren't allowed to photograph).

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