Sofia - as in Saint or stress?

Trip Start Aug 11, 2009
Trip End Sep 30, 2010

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Flag of Bulgaria  ,
Sunday, August 1, 2010

Our introduction to Sofia was the traffic jam on the main boulevard into town, which we avoided by the happy accident of driving in the tram lane, and the car park (I would like to blame the driver there, but that one was down to the navigator).
Thankfully it was a Sunday, so the hairy intersections were marginally less crowded and we actually managed to get a parking spot at our hostel, who cleverly wangled us a hostel-pick-up from the hire car staff. Thank goodness - no more navigating! (I would say driving but that was Bevan's dubious honor).

So what else can I say about the capital of Bulgaria, a country that is famous for 4 things:
1. The head nod for no, head shake for yes (no, we haven't mastered it)
2. The Cyrillic alphabet, generally called the Russian alphabet, although it was invented by Bulgarian monks (who confusingly Macedonia also claims as their own)
3. Having their own unique yogurt bacteria
4. The woman on Bulgarian idol who sang "Ken Lee" (she is the 3rd most famous Bulgarian)

As it turns out, Sofia is not as quirky as one might be led to expect. Its also not the unpleasant best-avoided big city that the guide books led us to believe. We spent a fair bit of our time strolling the wide tree lined boulevards and exploring tiny winding alleyways, until we found our favorite Lebanese falafel shop (with resident kitten) and then we seemed to wander those same streets surprisingly often.
In fact the city could plausibly be referred to as the city of kittens - our hostel alone had 11 (all siblings, and one very stressed looking mother cat).

My favorite monument (and how could it not be) is the "monument to the Bulgarian state" built to celebrate 1300 years since the first Bulgarian empire. Built by the communists in the 1980s, it is now referred to as the "monument to communism" because it lasted barely a decade before bits started falling off it. Or perhaps because it is covered with netting so more bits don't fall onto people - you can tell it is falling apart, but you can't actually see it. Appropriate?

The Southern skyline is dominated by nearby Mt Vitosha, although the mountain is so successful at trapping pollution and clouds that it usually just looks like a looming grey blur. Our attempts to visit Mt Vitosha National Park turned into a veritable comedy of errors (not so comical at the time). We began by attempting to catch the tram to the bus station. Attempt, because as it turns out the tram does not exist any more. An hour and a bus later and we make it to the station - success!! Or not, because an indecipherable sign seems to indicated that the bus we want has been rerouted or canceled.
We went for a stroll through a nearby park instead, pretending that it was the national park although the only wildlife was the bikini clad sunbathers. Giving up, we attempted to catch the bus back only to meet some truly delightful (hello sarcasm) ticket inspectors who declare that our tickets are not correct. For all we know, they might have been right, but we got a bit suspicious when all three inspectors suddenly forgot about checking anyone else's tickets, hustled us off the bus at the next stop and started threatening us in Bulgarian that if we don't pay a fine, they call the police. We asked them to please call the police, which seemed to make them more annoyed as they started demanding our passports. We spent about 5 minutes arguing by mime - them gesturing 'pay the fine or we call police!' and us gesturing 'please call the police so we know that this is a legitimate fine' after which they gave us back our tickets and gestured 'go away'.
Over lunch we gathered our courage to try public transport again, and caught a tram to a different (closer) part of Mt Vitosha. A group of mischievous looking kids came and sat next to me, established that I did not speak Bulgarian and started practicing their English  - their vocabulary seemed to consist of 'what is your name', 'motherfucker' and 'bitch'. Thankfully the latter two were not directed at me.
We finally hiked up some of the foothills of Vitosha National Park, a pleasant walk through oak forest and some much needed relief from city traffic.
The experience probably seemed more enjoyable for the contrast to the complications of getting there.

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