Things were getting serious now – I had left Asia for the first time in 13 months. It truly was the beginning of the end.
Luckily I still had one more week of travelling before it was back to the daily grind, and I had decided to spend it in Eastern Europe because
it was cheap it sounded brilliant. For some reason flights between UAE and Bulgaria are very cheap so I landed in Sofia in the early hours of the morning, with no real idea of what sort of an experience I was going to have. I was just relieved to no longer feel like I was in an oven.
My main plan was to stock up on European goodies I’d either missed out on or had to pay a premium for in Asia. The joy on my face at simply getting a fresh sandwich and Milka chocolate was unparalleled. Sofia almost definitely fattened me up, mainly because it was staggeringly cheap. Almost on a par with Asia in terms of value for money, I spent most of my time here drinking beer and scoffing fatty foods – because I could. Pizza and pasta dishes are so cheap and buying fresh lunches in a supermarket only set me back a couple of euros (or Bulgarian lev as the currency is).
As for Sofia itself, it’s probably one of my favourite European cities. I spoke to someone in my hostel who said it was dirty and soulless but we must have visited two different places. The weather was gorgeous, with clear blue skies all around and fantastic views of the distant hills. Sofia’s main street, Vitosha Bouvelard, was brimming with cafes and bars where I sat out, wiling away the hours by watching the world go by with a few beers and a good meal in hand. It’s the people watcher’s paradise.
Maybe it was because the sun was shining but I felt it had a real charm about it which is sometimes lost in the big sprawling capital cities. It made for a great wander, especially since the weather was so good. This was at the tail end of September so it seems that summer definitely lingers in the southeastern states.
In terms of attractions, I didn’t do too much other than wander, eat and drink. Sofia is very green with parks just about everywhere, which was perfect for the nice weather. On top of that, there’s a lot of interesting architecture to be seen. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a wonderfully weird and photogenic building which I enjoyed walking round in amazement. They don’t make churches like that in England, that’s for sure! I think more churches and cathedrals should be “funked up” a bit.
Sofia gets the usual capital city criticisms levied at it but it’s certainly up there with my top European destinations. I think part of that was relief from not being killed off by Dubai, but it’s a great city to soak up and drink cheap beer all day. That’s a big winner in my eyes.
Following Sofia, I was heading North as my ultimate destination was Romania from where I’d be flying home. Before crossing over the border however, I wanted to experience some Bulgarian countryside as that was the image that was always in my head when I thought of Bulgaria. I decided to spend a night in Veliko Tarnovo, whose name I couldn’t pronounce until about a day before I arrived. Plenty of buses ply the route from Sofia’s domestic bus station (which is by the train station) and you can just rock up on the day. The stands are all lined up for the different companies with their timetables so I just picked the next bus.
In the most laid back interrogation I’ve ever seen, a random guard stopped me and asked me to see my passport (good job it wasn’t two months earlier) before questioning me on what illegal items I had on me today. “Do you have drugs? Do you have firearms?” It was all very chilled and I think he was just a bit bored. We’d eventually been there so long that he couldn’t even think of anymore illegal stuff. “Do you have… cigarettes?” I like to think he was rehearsing for a role in a Bulgarian cop show.
After recovering from my intense questioning, I made it t’North where, unlike in England, the weather was still beautiful. From Veliko Tarnovo, I was able to book my shockingly cheap train to Bucharest for the next day from the post office, wander amongst the lush scenery and go back to the wonderful Hostel Mostel for free bean soup (nicer than it sounds!) and bread, plus £1 beers with the other people in the hostel.
I’m starting to wonder if the reason I liked Bulgaria so much is because I’m possibly an alcoholic…