We took a cab to our hotel, Hotel Light, which is located right in the heart of downtown Sofia - what luck
! I found this hotel by doing a brief online search, and it is small but clean and perfect for what we need. I have to admit that our drive from the airport to the hotel left me a bit confused. I have a natural tendency to make comparisons of cities I visit....but I could not get a feel for how Sofia compares to other cities I've visited. But I don't want to reflect on comparisons here in this blog - every city is unique in its own way. But, Sofia truly is different from any other city I've seen! Sofia is nestled in among the mountains in the Balkans, and it is one of the oldest European cities. When I think of Sofia, I will remember the gorgeous tall trees in the city and lining the narrow streets, the many hot springs water fountains, and the numerous Eastern Orthodox churches - both magnificent and conspicuous as well as those tucked away in the off-the-beaten path streets. It has a history that dates back to pre-historic times and it is home to the ancient Bulgar tribal people; indeed, parts of present-day Bulgaria were once part of the ancient Thracian kingdom, then was occupied by the Greeks, then the Romans. It became unified as a Bulgarian ethnicity during the 7th century with the rise of the First Bulgarian Empire (which favored Eastern Orthodox Christianity and fell to the Byzantines in 1018), which was followed by the Second Bulgarian Empire (thanks to the Asen Dynasty nobles) that fell in 1396 when the region south of the Danube River came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire for nearly 500 years (which explains the bitterness felt by Bulgarians against the Turks that still lingers today!)
. Then, the Russian victory during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 liberated Bulgaria, resulting in the Third Bulgarian State recognized in 1908 and a still-present adoration of the Russians by Bulgarians (despite the still visible social and economic effects from the communist regime!) Bulgaria allied with Germany in both World Wars; and, in 1946, behind the Iron Curtain became a communist republic until 1989. More recently, Bulgaria joined the EU, but Bulgaria still uses its own currency (the lev), and continues to struggle economically.
While on the taxi ride to the hotel, I rolled down the cab windows (apparently Bulgarians aren't as addicted the air conditioner as I am - and btw I'm still highly nauseous at this time) and breathed in the air...something I do when I arrive somewhere new for the first time. The air smells like a mixture of outdoor food vendors with an occasional hint of sweet, old, musk. Very different!!
Dennis and I took cold showers and slept for one hour to fend off the evil jet lag monster - and it worked apparently. Nikolay, the local fellow virologist who is our main contact here, met us at our hotel. (This, after I literally melted my $200 hair iron due to the plug adapter...you'd think after all the traveling that we do that this wouldn't happen to us - think again! And since I cannot live without this accessory, I'm quite distraught!! This means my hair will look terrible for all the pictures from our vacation. Ugh.) Anyhow, we walked through part of downtown Sofia. The city is located on top of underground hot springs - yes, there is lots of tectonic plate shifting here, so there is a large plaza where people were come to fill their jugs with hot spring water from multiple city fountains
. I drank some, of course, despite the heat and despite my Ambien induced hangover - which by this time had slowly dissipated. We bought some Bulgarian beers and drank them while we continued walking. We walked past so many beautiful buildings that I hope we will visit either tomorrow or Thursday (Wednesday we have a day trip scheduled to see other parts of Bulgaria beyond Sofia). We finished our beers in a large, beautiful tree-filled park with a lake surrounded by weeping willows. There are many tall green trees in the city - which I absolutely love. We ended the evening by eating outdoors at a small restaurant on this lake. Nikolay introduced us to raki - a Bulgarian hard liquor made from grapes that is served chilled on ice. It is delicious and we shall definitely consume more of this in the next days!! We also ate a typical Bulgarian meal - salad (much like a Greek salad) and a plate with 4 different kinds of meat.
Tomorrow, Dennis will present at the virology lab here in Sofia and tour the facilities while I will spend the day, solo, exploring Sofia!! (And maybe replacing my beloved and much needed hair iron.) Dennis will post pictures tomorrow.
Today, Dennis and I were able to scratch off one more item off our "bucket list of to-dos" - visit Sofia, Bulgaria. (Well, at least it was on my bucket list.) We had a quick layover in Paris and arrived in Sofia at 4pm local time. First, I want to point out that I'm very grateful our flights were on time and that we arrived safely. But, quite frankly, Air France left a lot to be desired. I was expecting French cuisine and service magnifique, if you know what I mean. On the contrary, my friends! It was hot the entire 10+ hours, food was dry (although at least the wine was free!), seating was more cramped than any other airline I've ever experienced, there was lots of turbulence, and service was poor. However, I probably should not have taken an Ambien on the flight from Houston to Paris, being a first-time "user". By the time we arrived in Sofia, I felt like I had a really bad hangover (side effects plus jet lag is NOT a great way to start a vacation!).