City of Wisdom & Culture

Trip Start Aug 20, 2012
Trip End Sep 18, 2012

Flag of Bulgaria  ,
Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Monday, September 10 - Thursday, September 13


My worst inter-city commute to date was from Montenegro to Sofia.  It was an overnight 14 hour bus ride from Herceg Novi to Nis, Serbia (I already mentioned the driving through the wild fires in Montenegro), and then being stuck in Nis, Serbia (arrival at 7 am) for the next 9 hours before my connecting 4 hour bus ride from Nis to Sofia.

Nis was awful (with all due respect and apologies to anyone I know anywhere in the world who has any connection to Nis).  The pollution of that city was terrible and I would estimate, in the absence of any other industry, that 97.3% of the pollution was directly correlated to the excessive smoking abuse of Nis' population.  I could not stand anywhere without inhaling fumes from Hades.  Walking through the market were some beautiful (seemingly) fresh peppers that were drowning in the exhaust vendors that would smoke 3 cigarettes in the period of the 2 minutes I was checking their produce wares.  

Another comical moment: 
I had heard and learned, but I had temporarily forgotten that Bulgarians reverse the nod and shakes of the head for "yes" and "no".  I.e. "Yes" is symbolized by the horizontal shake of the head (vs. our "no"), and the "no" is symbolized by the vertical nod of the head (vs. our "yes").

Upon passing border control from Serbia to Bulgaria, the bus was at a gas station for a brief rest stop and I was excited for the opportunity to pose for pictures with the Bulgarian border police and their HUM-V border jeep:
"May I get a picture with you?" I asked the border police.  
The patrol grinned at me, clearly amused at such a request. "Nay" he said while NODDING his head.
"Really?!" I was excited that he was honoring my odd request.  I grabbed my camera and moved into position, ready to put my arm around his bulky camouflaged shoulder and say (Bulgarian) "cheese".  
Still smiling, on the verge of chuckling, "Nay!" he NODDED.  This time, he put up his hand, waving me away.  I took it as a sign of personal embarrassment and made a counter offer.
"Ok, how about the jeep?  Can I get a picture of the jeep?!" 
Still chuckling, "nay, nay" he NODDED. I moved into position, ready to take the picture.
He jumped off the jeep, ready to intercede and reached for my camera.  He became more stern, and said "NO", this time, SHAKING his head.
"Ok, ok, sorry - I get it now".  He chuckled again and showed me the visual clues:
"Da" (shaking head)
"Nay" (nodding head)
Enter bizarro world...

27 hours later from departing Montenegro, I arrived in Sofia.  My apartment host gave me conflicting directions to his apartment and I was lost in Sofia.  I asked taxi drivers whom none seemed to know the apartment's street.  It was another 85 degree night and I was in full pack, sweating, and exhausted from the 27 hours commute.  Finally arriving at the apartment, I was happy to find the apartment another great choice and my host was accommodating and patient with my propensity to be lost that night.

Despite all of my pictures, there was very little "to see" in Sofia. The Alexander Nevski Church was one of the more spectacular Eastern Orthodox churches I had ever seen.  Likewise (and surprisingly), the Sofia Synagogue had to be one of the more beautiful synagogues I had ever seen.  There were many other Eastern Orthodox churches, all of which began to blend into one another's similarities.

I impressed myself when I was so astounded by the beauty of the synagogue (Moorish revival & Venetian), I was curious to learn more.  Finding the building (community) manager, he did not speak English and I did not speak Bulgarian, but we both spoke Hebrew.  For 20 minutes, he and I had a full conversation about the demographics, history and current topics of the Sofia Jewish community. The synagogue had clearly survived WWII and was not subject to Nazi destruction - what happened?

It turned out Bulgaria's WWII history and its Jewish community ties was very interesting. Although Bulgaria had both instituted restrictive laws of its Jewish community AND was aligned with the Nazi Axis Powers, Bulgaria rejected the 3rd Reich's call for Concentration Camp deportations.  Nearly the entirety of the Bulgarian (Bulgaria Proper) Jewish community was saved from Holocaust persecution.  There were areas of Bulgarian authority during WWII (i.e. parts of Greece or Macedonia) that were persecuted by Germany, but the sizable 50,000 Bulgarian community survived the war.  The majority of those 50,000 moved to Israel, leaving approximately 2,000 Jews still living in Bulgaria today.  Despite the Allied bombings in 1944, the synagogue survived a few minor hits, and was never subject to Nazi desecration.  It really was a beautiful synagogue, and an architectural majesty.  

There were several other notable elements of Sofia that I really found intriguing.  One was the "remnant" of the Soviet influence, and the other was the evident arts & culture scene (including the underground/urban art).

From the end of WWII and through its 1990 departure, Bulgaria was part of the Soviet Union's Eastern Bloc.  There were signs of the former Soviet influence throughout my Sofia experience. One of my favorite Sofia sites was the "Monument to the Soviet Army" expressing gratitude to Mother Russia for rescuing Bulgaria from the Nazi fascist regimes.  The monument was a statue of three people on the top of a pillar 15 yards tall above a pillar of several reliefs of other molds of the plights of the Soviet/Bulgarian people.

The reliefs depicted the work ethic of Soviet nationalists rising up in industry and brothers-in-arm as means of a unified military.  The political social commentary of the statues was amazing - graffiti artists had intentionally painted different parts of the statues in the whites, greens, and reds of the national Bulgarian flag.

Urban political protests and poets suggested that the white/green/red painted faces of the Soviet Nationalists were actually Bulgarian.  The products of their industry, the propellers and engines shown on the reliefs, were also painted in Bulgaria's national colors.

Was this artistic protest to suggest it was Bulgarian (not Russian) nationalists who made the "choice" of salvation?  Or was it perceived allegiance that Bulgarian nationalists and Soviet nationalists were one in the same?

Another "interesting" destination was the Monument to the Bulgarian State (or the 1300th Anniversary Monument, 1981) - this was a hideous excuse for art. It was a nasty neglected concrete eye sore. The political art critic's perspective might suggest it was intentionally incomplete because of its dependance on the Soviet State, and/or the inability to complete or beatify the structure because of Bulgaria's reluctance to embrace its own independence.

Throughout Sofia, there was a strong art & cultural scene, rife with many art galleries and performance opportunities.  In addition, the street art was on many corners.  There was an apparent "underground" artists scene as part of Sofia's normative cultural experience.

My final night in Sofia had a near run-in with the Bulgarian Mafia. Yes, the Bulgarian Mafia. Before telling you about the near Mafia experience, indulge me in describing the club. Many of Sofia clubs celebrate "chalga" - traditional Bulgarian music, lyrics, and instruments set to techno and house music.  This club I was at was a chalga club, complete with 2 singers, 2 drum machines, and a roving saxophonist that were all playing accompaniment to the techno DJ's in the booth above the dance floor. As the DJ increased the pace of the heart-throbbing beats, the singers/saxist/and drummers roved the crowd.  Large tables each of 6-10 young Bulgarians smoking hookah or fanning themselves with folding fans sang together the traditional songs that were blasting over the speakers. It was almost other-worldly weird.

And then... the mafia. The mafia clearly owned the club (and its entertainment).  Two women sitting to my right apparently made a song request. They were surprised that they were also being held responsible for buying two rounds of six drinks (12 drinks) for the musical entourage that would be "performing" the song, and an additional 20 Bulgarian Lev charge for the song request, itself.  The women were finished, and were leaving before their song had played, and insisting they did not know of the additional charges.  Because of my proximity in sitting near the women, the "bar management" insisted that I should be the one responsible paying for the additional drinks, song request, etc. "Management" and I continued to argue, my insisting I was not going to pay for any drinks, song requests, or anything.  Additional "management" approached and lied, insisting that I was able to speak Bulgarian and they had seen me speaking Bulgarian with the two women who had just left.  Thankfully, I was able to leave the club both without paying for any additional drinks, and with all of the same body parts as I entered the club.  Ahhh.... Bulgaria....

My trip to Sofia concluded spending the day with my former assistant from Palm Beach, Anna, who is Bulgarian and returned to Sofia about 8 years ago.  It was great to see another friend on my month's journey. 

Sofia felt a lot more modern than most of the other cities that I had visited.  There were no significant elements of an "Old Town", just a handful of old churches.  In the absence of many touring sites, there was a vibrant social and cultural nightlife.  It was a fun destination, but nothing earth shattering in my travel discoveries... 

Onward to the overnight train to Belgrade...  

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