Warming up in Sofia

Trip Start Feb 04, 2011
Trip End Nov 04, 2011

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Where I stayed
Lion Hotel

Flag of Bulgaria  ,
Friday, June 3, 2011

I didn't know what to expect when I arrived in Sofia. I knew very little about Bulgaria except for a few horror stories from friends who had been there. Taxi scams, local mafia and stolen cars from Germany. But those stories could have taken place anywhere from Albania to Romania because we always seem to pigeon hole this part of the world into the "can't be trusted" category. So it was no surprise that I was a little precautious on the bus to Sofia. However, when the bus arrived at the main station it didn't seem that bad.

I was here to meet Richard who I'd last seen almost two months ago in Macedonia. I was now travelling back through the Balkans and as Sofia is only a few hours away from Macedonia's capital, Skopje, we agreed to meet up again in Sofia. Richard booked a hotel a few blocks from the station and it couldn't have been any easier to find. So far so good. I'd made a new friend on the bus, Hemli from Tunisia who was on his way back to Paris where he's been living for the last eight years. He was heading my way so we walked as far as the Lion Hotel which was really only a few minutes walk from the station. Even in the area close to the station, which is never a good first impression for any city, the streets were lined with trees and the traffic was orderly and nowhere near as chaotic as Istanbul or Beirut. Also - everyone stops at the street corner and waits for the light to turn green before crossing. This was something I hadn't seen for a while. Not even in Sydney would people be so patient.

Richard was having an afternoon nap when I arrived at the hotel. His bus from Skopje arrived very early in the morning and the hotel staff were nice enough to let him check in early. I don't think I can tolerate overnight buses. If I have to travel overnight I'll choose a train and even then, it would have to include some sort of comfort (sleeper cabin) to convince me not to fly. Not to mention the border crossings which make any sleep almost impossible. Eventually we left the hotel and went to a restaurant called Happy and it then occurred to me when we were seated at a table that could have been anywhere in the world, that these people really are happy. All those stories about being ripped off in restaurants or taken to the wrong hotel by shifty taxi drivers. Was that really in Sofia? I just couldn't imagine a city as sophisticated as this being in that category. Everyone in the city seemed cheerful and the streets were full of bars and cafes pumping out the same tunes you'd hear in Berlin or London. There was a real vibe about this place and from the moment I arrived it was if the city had put out a welcome mat for me.

The next day we went sightseeing and as Richard has been to this city several times before (and speaks the language) it was obviously a more positive experience than if I were on my own. Still, I couldn't imagine bringing home any horror stories if I'd spent my time in Sofia alone. It just didn't seem like a scary place - and despite the images we have of cities like Sofia being architectural nightmares from a long lost communist era, the city centre was very charming. We had a look inside some beautiful old churches and street stalls as well as sampling some great local food and wine. I think the bad old days of ex-communist countries is over in this region. What used to be a country of stifling bureaucracy and miserable customer service is fast becoming a hot destination for fantastic wine and scenic countryside. I'm sure the locals might have a different and somewhat negative opinion of their own country but as a visitor I saw nothing negative during my two brief days in Sofia and I only have nice things to say. I guess it's just luck as I'm sure some travellers don't always arrive in places like Sofia as fortunately as I did.

I must point out that it's the start of summer so this might have had something to do with the general mood of the whole place when I arrived. The sun was shining and it was probably about thirty degrees celsius so what's not to like. The locals seemed cheerful and very accommodating as well as probably looking forward to a few warm months of summer so it's all to be expected that the experience was a positive one. We saw one crazy, vagrant American woman with braided hair and carrying a load of something peculiar on her back, yelling at passers-by like a deranged bag lady. It made me realise that at times on this trip I'm only a few stages away from becoming like her so it was good to see what I would be like in a parallel universe. Not very pretty. Let's see if Russia manages to push my buttons like that.

To summarise Sofia in a few words I would describe it as being typically European with its city centre of cobbled streets, trams, churches, monuments and streetside cafes. If I had to choose one word I would say cosmopolitan. Sure, it doesn't have the ethnic mix of a city like London or Paris, but it's certainly a city that is big enough to sustain a good collection of nightlife, culture and tourist attractions as well as being small enough to make it a very pedestrian friendly city. So far on this trip, if any city has managed to defy its reputation to an extreme it would have to be Sofia. Put this city on the map!  
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