Old churches in Sofia & Overnight Train - Istanbul

Trip Start Jun 19, 2011
Trip End Jul 12, 2011

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Where I stayed
Hotel Light Sofia
Read my review - 5/5 stars

Flag of Bulgaria  ,
Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sadly, today was our last day in Bulgaria, but there was still lots to see and I feel almost completely better! Luckily, our overnight train to Istanbul wasn't scheduled until 7pm which gave us ample amounts of time to visit the the last places on our "must-see list": Russian Church "St. Nikolai" (built around 1912); St. Sofia Church (my favorite of them all; it was built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian between 527-565); and Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (built between 1882-1912 - post Ottoman rule). Most Bulgarians are Bulgarian Orthodox Christians. As I mentioned in my earlier post, taking pictures inside these religious buildings is prohibited. Suffice it to say...all are breathtaking. Soaring domes, ostentatious (but beautiful and large-than-life) chandeliers, dramatic murals and mosaics, candelabra, incense burners, and lots of icons of Jesus, Mary, and other saints. There was a small funeral service taking place in St. Sofia at the time of our visit. We kept our respectful distance, but this gave us the ability to hear the choir in the upper chamber. We also stopped in an old palace-turned-museum to purchase some souvenirs - Rose Oil and Rose Soap, and a T-shirt. Rose Oil is a major export for Bulgaria and apparently a very typical souvenir item for tourists...

Our last hours in Sofia were spent with Nikolay, first at the virology lab and then at a small cafe where we had a very late lunch. Since my stomach has finally come around, I treated myself to a delicious baked Bulgarian cheese, a hearty Bulgarian sachi (meat dish/way of preparing the meat), and a local beer.

Dennis and I arrived at the train station around 6:30pm to find out that our train was 2 hours delayed. It was coming from Austria and Belgrade and at some point along the way it got stuck somewhere apparently, as those carts actually never made it! (Our very short sleeper car left after 3 hours and still no sight of the train from Belgrade!) Dennis was a bit concerned about what the condition of the sleeper car would be, but I reminded him that it could only be a step up from the trains we took during our trip throughout India!! I was right: our sleeper car from Sofia to Istanbul was actually quite romantic - a small, cozy, private berth with 2 beds and air conditioning (and a door with a lock!), also a WC (aka bathroom) and shower! And the toilet was actually a real toilet that flushed! I was so pleased with this! (But then I later discovered that the bathrooms did not have toilet paper - renders them a bit useless??)  But the staff on the train was very friendly and accommodating otherwise, and they spoke some English. I slept quite well (although Dennis did not) right up until 4am when the train stopped and we were informed that we were at the Bulgarian border for a passport check. Then, 30 minutes later we arrived at the Turkish border (yes, we were confused how it's possible the Turkish border is so far away from the Bulgarian border, too). At the Turkish border, we had to stand outside for about an hour in the cold dark in order to get our visas and passports stamped. Then, as if we actually could, we were allowed to return to the train and go back to sleep! Nearly 6 hours later, we finally arrived in Istanbul (around noon). At that point, we actually had fallen asleep and nearly missed our stop.

Although a plane ride would have been much more convenient and quick, I am glad we took the train, as this is all part of a fun adventure! :)

I'm quite tired now, so I will need to write 2 posts tomorrow to catch up!  I hope you are all doing well back home.
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