After spending the last several days in relative isolation in Belgrade, my experience in Sofia, Bulgaria was a breath of fresh air. The city is remarkably well kept and, even though the architectural styles of the communist era leave much to be desired, the buildings throughout town create an excellent atmosphere for aimless strolling. Sofia is an enormous city full of fantastic people, great food, and a thriving nightlife, but best of all, it's dirt cheap and a haven for backpackers trying to stick to a budget. There are plenty of attractions to entertain travelers both young and old alike, and even after spending a week in this great city, I still didn’t have enough time to see everything I wanted.
Mainly because of drinking.
More on that later.
My train ride from Belgrade into Sofia was particularly entertaining. Since my ticket was for an overnight journey, I incorrectly assumed a bed was included in the price. When I boarded the train I fumbled through my pockets to see if I could afford the upgrade but realized I was 100 Dinars short (~$1.03). The conductor was not pleased and relegated me to a cramped six-person seated cabin with five other Serbians heading to Sofia for a film festival. The seats were far from comfortable, but as everyone began dozing off we agreed to recline all our chairs to create one large padded platform. For the next five hours, I laid squished together with five random Serbians in a giant pile of clothing and people as the train slowly made its way to Sofia.
This is just one of the many bonding moments I've had with strangers on this trip.
Checking into my hostel was likewise comical. The temperature outside was a brisk 1°C, so my walk from the train station to my hostel was uncomfortable to say the least. When I arrived, my fingers were completely numb and since I wasn't familiar with the local currency, Bulgarian Lev, I simply plopped down a small stack of bills on the front desk and told the receptionist to take what he needed. It wasn't even 9:00 am yet, but I was exhausted, cold, and in dire need of a shower; I didn't care how valuable these little pieces of paper were - I just needed a room for the night. I paid the man and I hid in the common room for the next thirty minutes to thaw out a bit before heading out for a free walking tour.
They really are a traveler’s best friend.
While it is clear that a lot of the architecture around Sofia is heavily influenced by its communist history. Thankfully to counteract the blandness of such buildings like the National Assembly Office, there are beautiful buildings like the intricate Ivan Vazov National Theater, the Parisian-style Sofia University Saint Kliment Ohidski, and the gargantuan Cathedral Saint Alexandar Nevski (which is my personal favorite). The diversity even extends to religious monuments. In downtown Sofia you can find an Orthodox Catholic church, Roman Catholic church, Islamic mosque, and Jewish synagogue all within a stone’s throw of each other and managing to peacefully coexist.
If only the rest of the world could be this way.
The tour was filled with great stories and some fantastic sights, but the most comical one was about a little balcony located on the second floor of the Bulgarian National Bank building. The building itself is simple, heavy, and generally uninspiring, but if you look closely there is a small elegant steel balcony poking out from the building on the right-hand side of the main entrance. The story goes that if the bank should ever fail, the president is expected to commit suicide by throwing himself from this balcony.
The US should take a page from Bulgaria and implement this rule for our banks. Just think of all the trouble we could have saved ourselves back in ’08?
While I did the usual tourist circuit in Sofia, I spent most of time enjoying the company of my hostel roommates - and this led to a lot of drinking. Thankfully, even in November Sofia is a major destination for anyone traveling through the Balkans and my hostel was full of backpackers. Now that the high season for vacationers is over, the only people left are students on a quick holiday or backpackers who've been traveling for the past year, two years, or even fifteen years in once case.
My group from the hostel consisted mainly of travelers from the Germany, Australia, and the US. While it wasn’t the most diverse crowd, it was nice to be around people with similar travel experiences. In particular, one of the Americans I met, Ana, is in the exact same situation as me: lived in New York City after college, got fed up with work, quit, and is now traveling the world indefinitely. The other American, Mike, is an older gentlemen from Colorado who quit his job as a… take a guess... management consultant and now spends his time on the road traveling and working for various NGOs.
Small world. I guess I'm not so special after all.
This was finally my chance to be the stereotypical “backpacker” and spend my time socializing and drinking. Even after my seven days in the city, I still didn’t have a chance to see all of the sites, but I feel my trip to Belgrade was full of enough educational experiences so I opted instead to partake in the festivities at the hostel. As such, my last five nights in the city were full of pub crawls, bar hopping, and drinking games all fueled by god's greatest gift to mankind, the two-liter bottle of beer.
Go ahead and take a guess how much two-liters of beer cost in Bulgaria?
Since arriving in Croatia, these little gems have solidified their place as one of the highlights of my trip through the Balkans. While few people would consider it a "cultural" experience I beg to differ - we don't have two-liter bottles of beer in the US that cost as much as a Coca-Cola. Evenings in Sofia varied from low-key nights where we played an addictive game card game called Yaniv, all the way to club hopping around town, but in all cases the night ended with a midnight run to the “famous” Ali Baba kebab shop. The group ended up frequenting this establishment so much so that the phrase, “They’re like family” became the restaurant’s unofficial slogan.
And even with all the partying, I never spent more than $35 dollars on any given day.
I love Bulgaria.
On my last day in the city I pulled myself away from the festivities to rid myself of what was becoming a permanent hangover to explore Sofia. The further away from the city center I ventured, the more like a local I felt. While the outlying neighborhoods are not nearly as manicured as the city center, the experience feels more genuine. The usual graffiti, misplaced cobblestones, and traffic jams abound, but I saw families out with their kids in the park, skateboarders performing tricks on an old half pipe, and even an amateur soccer tournament. The tournament was easily the highlight of my last day because I was the only foreigner in the entire complex. All around me were locals watching the games from the bleachers, drinking beer, eating buffalo wings, and talking about their day.
Or screaming obscenities at the players on the field… remember it's a soccer match.
Even though the temperature outside was frigid and there were plenty of other attractions I wanted to see that day, I was perfectly content to sit, watch a few games, grab a beer, and listen to the locals even though I had no idea what they were talking about. For me, watching a soccer game on TV is about as exciting as waiting for paint dry, but thanks to the remarkably talented players and the entertaining crowds, I watched two entire games without even realizing it. Surprise days like this are what make travel so rewarding and why I love wandering aimlessly around a city. There is no way to plan for moments like this, you just kind of stumble into them, but it was the prefect way to spend the afternoon.
On my last night in Sofia I had a difficult time deciding whether or not to leave the city. Part of my reasoning was that there were till things I wanted to see in town, but mostly I felt lethargic and couldn't be bothered to move cities again. Thankfully, some of the people from my group invited me to tag along with them for an impromptu trip Plovdiv. Since the city is almost halfway to Istanbul (which was my next stop anyway) I figured why not; while I had no intention of ever visiting Plovdiv, at least the company was good and it was in the right direction.
So it looks like I’m off to Plovdiv with my friends from Sofia. I never planned on seeing the place, don't know if there are any hostels in the city, or even have the slightest idea about what there is to do in Plovdiv… but I guess I’ll find all that out tomorrow when I get there.
All in all it sounds like my typical Tuesday at this point in my life.