I didn’t fall in love with Sofia, but it’s probably not her fault. The Bulgarian capital boasts a few architectural gems, a couple of jaw-dropping cathedrals and the biggest Sephardic synagogue in Europe, easily the nicest I’ve seen. It also has plenty of parks littered with Soviet-era monuments. When the subway was dug a couple years ago, they unearthed a whole Roman city, so you could go on an archeological expedition while waiting for your train.
But Sofia is also noisy, compulsively commercial and clogged with traffic. I’ve never seen a city with so many banks and ATMs, or such a lopsided retail shop to restaurant ratio. Some of the city’s handsomest buildings are defaced by giant billboards advertising American brands. It’s capitalism gone wild. That said, it was circa 37 degrees during my four days in Sofia. I also visited Monday to Thursday so I didn’t give the city’s famous nightlife much chance to flex its muscles.
I did spend one evening with a couple of Scottish lads, both medical students in Glasgow. We found an outdoor square where they were showing the Brazil-North Korea match and took turns feeling magnanimous buying each other 2-leva ($1.25) cups of beer. We compared the sovereignty movements in our respective outposts, the offsides rules in hockey vs. soccer and, after I ordered a Jameson ala Jimmy McNulty, launched into a good half-hour conversation about The Wire.
Another highlight of my Sofia period was the evening I spent with a local family. For the past three years I’ve been a member of Servas, a worldwide hospitality network born out of the post-war DP camps, that’s devoted to fostering cultural understanding and peace. Basically, after a cursory interview with a local coordinator, you’re given access to incredibly detailed “host lists” filled with the names, occupations, hobbies and histories of people willing to let you stay with them for a night or two. Others are simply “day hosts” who are happy to show you around town, but don’t have room for you to stay.
Deyan is a day host who I had arranged to meet a few weeks before my trip. He picked me up at the hostel and walked me to his apartment 10 minutes away. Deyan is in his mid-30s, with a shaved head, hip glasses and decent English. In our email exchanges he explained that he was only a day host because “we live in a very tiny apartment.” He wasn’t kidding. He lives with his wife and two young kids in a fourth-story flat that consists of a bathtub-sized entrance with two small bedrooms to the left and a kitchen/dining room/living room/office/piano studio to the right.
I was only expecting to chat but his wife, a very skinny and tanned woman who speaks perfect French, had prepared dinner. We sat at a small card table, me on the couch, propped up by a cushion. It was a simple meal of roasted potatoes with Bulgarian white cheese, green peppers and some sort of sausage whose provenance I dared not question. Also, a really nice bottle of red wine from the hilly region in the south. For dessert, a big bowl of cherries and these very addictive custard-filled, coconut-covered munchkin-sized donuts.
Their two girls, aged 9 and 7, are very cute. The younger one drew me a picture of what her mother somewhat sadly interpreted as the girl’s “dream house, where she can have her own room.” Deyan works for a Spanish company that sells construction equipment to local developers; she does something with trucks. They both travelled with Servas when they were younger and met actually through the local coordinator, so the organization is close to their hearts.
One of the best things about Servas is that, after dispensing with small talk, no subject is off limits. What do they think of the Turks? Not much – centuries of Ottoman rule left a bad taste in the mouth of many Bulgarians. Deyan said he sympathized with Israel on the flotilla incident because he was sure Turkey was just looking for attention. Communism? They sort of miss the Soviet-era music education their piano-playing daughters would have enjoyed. Corruption? There’s plenty of it. Many “developers” build giant hotels to launder their drug and prostitution money, keeping them vacant except on paper. Upward mobility? Not much. Most of the wealthy descend from the old communist-era brass so “it’s a real struggle” for middle class families. They miss travelling and had considered emigrating to Canada, but it’s too cold for her and “home is home.”
Funnily enough, they have friends in Montreal who have told them apocryphal stories about our healthcare and social welfare system. Apparently the friend’s daughter came home from school one day and informed him that if he forced her to do her homework, she’d call child protection services who would come and arrest him and take her away. The father called his daughter’s bluff, but he was credulous enough to relay the story to Deyan. “Can this really happen in Canada?” Deyan asked. “No,” I assured him.
Finally, I can’t talk about Sofia without mentioning my hostel. With a name straight out of Dr. Seuss, Hostel Mostel is housed in a restored 19th century inn, an urban oasis hidden inside a courtyard off the main drag. When you check in the amazingly friendly and fluent staff sits down with you and a map and offers an extensive rundown of places to eat, drink and explore. For 10 Euros, you get a bed, towel, WiFi access, a generous breakfast buffet and even a plate of pasta and a beer for dinner. Not so healthy, but a perfect opportunity to break bread with fellow travellers. I spent the previous week in four and five-star hotels, and this was the best hospitality experience I’ve had yet.
After the big city bustle of Sofia I took to the hills. One of Bulgaria’s famous quirks is that a head shake here means “yes,” while a nod means “no.” So it wasn’t entirely reassuring when, after boarding an unmarked minibus, I asked the person next to me whether we were headed to Koprivshtitsa and he responded with a slow, sullen shake of his head. I was in the right place and spent a bumpy 90-minute ride in the back of the bus, sandwiched between the young head shaker and a smiley old man with a moustache and a half-litre of beer, which he guzzled gleefully and replaced when we stopped for gas halfway through the trip.
Koprivshtitsa is a lovingly preserved hamlet east of Sofia. It’s famous for the opulent mansions built during the “revival period” that followed Bulgaria’s liberation from the Turks in the late 19th century. It’s quiet and peaceful and cool – the capital’s antithesis. I’d been told it would be easy to find accommodation, but when I arrived (around 3pm) the tourist office was closed and the streets were eerily quiet. A pair of hotels near the bus stop wanted to charge me 60 leva for the night (around $40), which seemed insane, so I wandered around the village looking for alternatives.
After about a half hour, an old one-armed lady made the sleeping sign with her remaining hand (like praying, but against her cheek) and said something about 15 leva, which sounded perfect. She led me way up one of the curvy cobblestoned hills that overlook the village, and just when I thought we’d be climbing forever, we arrived at a nice house with a lovely garden and small barn in front. She lived with her daughter and son-in-law and their toddler who slept in the room next to mine.
I deposited my bags and headed back down to the main square, making note of the way back up (left at the purple house, right at the tractor and big pile of dirt, etc.). I visited a few of the house-museums and then having not eaten since breakfast, I sat down at one of the Lonely Planet-recommended restaurants and ate like a king. Huge Shopska (Greek-ish) salad + whole grilled trout + “Parlenka” (delicious oven-baked naan with special spices and cheese) + pint of beer = 13 leva, or CAD $8!
Koprivshtitsa was the shit, but getting out of there was really shitty. I was planning to go to Plovdiv (Bulgaria’s second-largest city), two hours to the south. Unfortunately, the only bus heading there leaves at 6:30am, daily. I rose dutifully, descended the hill to the sound of barking dogs and cocking roosters, and waited more than an hour before the equally confused Bulgarian woman waiting with me read the fine print and discovered the bus had been temporarily suspended! So we were forced to double back to Sofia (2.5 hours) and then bus to Plovdiv from there (another 2.5 hours). Incredibly frustrating, but that’s Eastern Europe.
I’m in Plovdiv now, and it’s wonderful. I’m staying in the hill-top old city, which is filled with colourful revival houses, art galleries and Ottoman-era cafes with terraces abutting Thracian ruins. Best of all, a freak landslide in 1972 unearthed a miraculously preserved Roman amphitheatre that hangs over the city. Last night I watched the local opera company perform Pagliacci from a café-bar that looks down on the amphitheatre. I went with some folks from the hostel – a trio of Brits and a dude from Maine who goes to McGill and introduces himself as Otis, even though his name is Daniel (sounds like a Beatles song but it’s true).
I’m not sure if Plovdiv is the “Paris of Eastern Europe,” as my guidebook tells me, but it’s certainly the culture and fashion capital of Bulgaria. Before I left, a Bulgarian friend from grad school wrote me, “Supposedly in Plovdiv, the girls are very pretty. I do have friends there who wake up and do their hair for 2 hours. I would say, do some people watching on the main street of town. Hardly anyone would have their natural hair color.” She was spot on.
Not quite ready to hop on another bus, I decided to spend an extra day here to plan, relax and write while my clean laundry dangles on a clothesline in front of me.
Tomorrow I head east to the Black Sea Coast, which I’m told is littered with German, French and British beach bums this time of year. Let’s hope they’re on to something.