Sofia, Bulgaria - Almost Western Europe, Almost

Trip Start Apr 27, 2006
Trip End Apr 01, 2008

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The seven-hour train trip to Sofia, Bulgaria was quite nice. The train traveled through farmland and then an alpine gorge, with a nice river an alpine-esque towns. The train, of course, was an old Eastern Bloc special. The seats weren't bad, but the toilet went straight down onto the tracks - you could see the railroad ties going by. It reminded me why not to walk in the middle of railroad tracks.

I arrived on a Friday afternoon, and I was concerned about my hotel because the online agency I had booked it through had given me fits. They had first told me the original one I booked (center of town, well-reviewed) had told them they couldn't take me because a tour group had grabbed up all the rooms during the e-mail lag time of my request and their confirmation, so the agency offered me two other places for less money but not as central and they didn't have internet. I asked for the more central one, but they confirmed me into the less-central one (but still cheaper). By this time it was getting pretty close to me arriving and everything else in town was either real expensive or full, so I said, fine, give me the one at which you have me confirmed, and I sent them a fax with an actual signature (the first time that has been required so far). So (you got it), I get there, take a cab some 4 kilometers out of town to a suburb, and the hotel doesn't have my reservation. At lease they still had rooms - at a slightly higher price - but what choice did I have? So I stayed there, and sent the agency a nasty e-mail, to which they apologized, but so what?

Thus, every day I took a bus and a tram into town (not bad really and very cheap) and a cab back (also relatively cheap - $4), but it meant that I was pretty much committed for the whole day once I went into town.

Sofia itself was nice. A much more classical European city with tree-lined streets, wide avenues, 18th and 19th Century buildings, churches, modern stores and merchants, and much less Soviet-style architecture and ramshackledness an squalor. It still had its run-down parts, but so do most urban centers in the U.S. I saw very little homelessness, except for the stray dogs, but they appeared well-fed and were not threatening.

Unlike Bucharest and Varna, Sofia is back to the land of the Eastern European hottie. It's still not quite Russia - where you can't swing a Babuska without hitting a girl better looking than Anna Kournakova, but there are teen and twenty-somethings walking the streets dressed to the nines, in heels, hip-huggers and girly-t's. There were even more at the clubs. However, they are all young. I don't know exactly, but none look to be over 24. Then there are the forty-somethings, but there doesn't seem to be anything in-between. I think they get married, have kids and disappear for awhile (except in the parks, which are populated by women pushing prams, young kids, old men, surly teens, and ice-cream peddlers) - and they reemerge to sit in cafes with their friends in their forties - after their kids can now hang out alone in the park. Unfortunately, they go from hot to not in the interim.

As for me, nothing terribly exciting happened. On Friday, I had a traditional Bulgarian meal at a "madena," which apparently means "in a dark cellar filled with loud, rambunctious Bulgarians eating lots and lots of meat." I checked out a supposed ex-pat Irish bar, but couldn't find any expats to give me nightlife advice, so I went down the street to the "Why Not?" and spent the night talking to (And trying to figure out her vibe) to a Bulgarian girl who kept wanting to tell me how she was embarrassed for Bulgaria because it was having problems getting approved for entry into the EC in 2007 because of continued corruption, a non-independent judiciary, and aid money being misappropriated to politicians and mobsters.

On Saturday, I just wandered around, a bit in my head - taking notes and reading my book. I hung out at a jazz bar for a while, before ending up at a rather moderately populated club - until 1:00 a.m., when it tripled in population, and everyone started dancing to house music. I couldn't take it, so I left and had doner kebab at 3:00 a.m. That's my weekend meal schedule now - dinner and 3:00 a.m., sleep through breakfast (which is included at most hotels here and I never get my money's worth), and skip lunch because I'm not hungry after the 3:00 street-food.

On Sunday (and Monday), I spent a lot of time on the Internet firming up my plans through about July 10 (confirming dates of festivals, booking flights and hotels, etc.) Unfortunately, I learned that a couple of the festivals I had considered are on slightly different dates than I estimated, so they are out (the Nava Cider Festival, for example, conflicts with San Fermin). I had an excellent cheap meal at what I had been told was the most popular place in Sofia, and hung out shooting the shit with a couple bartenders at "the Nitro club" because it was a slow night there. However, I did then go to "the Beer Club," where it was all college kids celebrating graduation day, which at least explained why all day I had seen honking cars festooned with balloons and yelling kids, but which did not have the feeling of a wedding, since no one way wearing suits. It was fun, although the music is genre-bending - the DJ played everything from hip hop to Glenn Miller.

Monday was intentionally slow, since my bus left at 7:25 a.m. Tuesday morning.

Next Stop - Belgrade, Serbia (Hi Spanky!)
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