Bits of Bulgaria for the soul

For some reason, my arrival into Sofia was a hot mess. I needed to withdraw money because I had no lev as they are called and then I had to take a tram per my hostel’s directions. I decided to see if I could buy a metro ticket with my card since I couldn’t find the ATM.

I entered and asked the counter lady about an ATM.

“Little English.” She said confused. I placed my phone on the counter and tried describing what I needed and then said,

“Bankomat.” Which is ATM.

“Ah!” She told me I had to go through the metro to the other side. She let me pass and off I went. I arrived at the Bankomat and went to withdraw money. I needed to see how much in dollars I was withdrawing and I went to pull my phone out of my pocket.

Empty.

I slowly turned cold, colder than what I was already due to the weather. I searched all my pockets including the top pocket of my bag.

Empty.

I thought back. Then I remembered. If it was a book, I would say the blood drained from my face. I turned to the other counter lady and tried to ask her to call the other/first one.

“I left my phone on the counter.” She had no idea what I was saying, but she took pity on my frantic expression and voice and let me enter again.

I raced down the stairs, across the platform, and up the next set of stairs while my leg muscles were screaming. I have never ran with so much weight before let alone upstairs.

I get to the first counter and my phone laid there, waiting for me. The first lady looked at me in surprise and I held my phone. She shook her head in disapproval and went back to what she was doing.

I wanted to cry with relief. My phone was back with me. But, I also wanted to scream, such a rookie mistake. It just proves that no matter how seasoned you are in anything, you can make mistakes as well.

I then again went back to the machine, got my metro ticket and got on the metro to the center.

The bus/central train station is a 25 minute walk to the center, but with my bags and late at night, I wasn’t up for it.

You might have asked why I didn’t just hop on the metro when the ladies let me through. I did think about it, but as I was going back and forth, I saw several police/metro security and thought I better not otherwise they might check and I would be paying more than 80 cents for a ride.

Well, riding the metro only got me to the center, the very center. The name of that stops that connects the 2 lines is Serdica, the original name of Sofia.

According to my free walking tour the next day, Sofia was named after a church because people, when they came to visit, they would say they saw the church. Eventually, they would only say Sofia and not the name so it was then changed. So, it’s not named after the saint, but the church. Though there is a great golden statue of the saint in the center.

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Sofia is quite old. I believe the tour guide said one of the oldest European cities at 6,000 years. The evidence is in the different ruin layers. From the Romans to the medieval ages to now. Again, all in the center.

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Back to my adventure on my first night, so I still had to walk from the center about 10 minutes to my hostel. I stayed at Hostel Mostel and finding the entrance is interesting….there’s a small metal door and once entering, you come into this dirt courtyard and there is this lodge looking building. Downstairs is the common room and reception and upstairs are all the rooms.

There were many people checking in and I gave them my passport and waited for 30 minutes for them to process me. I originally got an 8 bed dorm and met 2 girls from Brazil and 3 girls from Spain. There was actually a lot of people from Spain and according to the tour guide, it’s because Ryan Air had such cheap flights from there to Sofia, direct.

That was perfectly fine with me as I got to practice my Spanish spanish. It had been awhile since I had listened to that accent and used vosotros. Though I forgot how loud they can be sometimes….

The next several nights I was in an 18 bed dorm in what my friend calls “the attic.” It does look like an attic, but I don’t mind it. There actually wasn’t that much snoring.

The free walking tour was great. My guide particularly was really funny and gave lots of history and cultural background such as why banks have balconies- so if the President screws up he can commit suicide. Ok, not a great story, but still interesting. I don’t think anyone has ever done so, thank goodness.

Sofia has a lot of churches, which are all beautiful. The most iconic is Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the inside is just as beautiful as the outside. Our guide brought up the competition with Serbia a lot. He said this particular church was the biggest until Belgrade built theirs, St. Sava, but to give Sofia “points,” Belgrade isn’t as nice on the inside as Sofia. No pictures allowed though.

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I met an Australian, J, and an English Scotsman, E. I talked with them during the tour and the 3 of us went to get lunch, bumping into the girls from Brazil and all of us ended up eating together. We had so much food and the company was equally awesome!

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J has been traveling for a year and has been to all the continents except Antarctica, he’s on his last few weeks. E is on a quick ski trip for the weekend. Both were extremely funny and had such interesting stories. E has done a lot of traveling when he was younger.

My hostel includes breakfast and dinner in prices 9 euros and up. The breakfast is quite good- waffles, eggs, cheese, meat, bread, granola, etc. And the dinner is several vegetarian options with a beer. We had so much food at lunch that I had a small helping of dinner.

At my table were 2 Belgian siblings, then 3 more Belgian joined, and then finally a German, S, I talked with at breakfast joined. When the Belgians were speaking Flemish, I was glad to have S to talk to. I’m quite used to sitting and trying to understand with a slight smile on my face, but it’s nice to talk to someone.

We had an interesting discussion as vodka shots and beer were being poured. S, one Belgian, and I discussed Latin America and Latin dances such as tango, and salsa. S didn’t like them while the Belgian, A, and I do.

There was actually an….awkward?… moment between S and I. I was recounting a story and in the story I was telling another friend that I’m including him in the list of European friends I have. Well, S thought I was saying that to him- that he was my new friend.

“Oh, cool, we are friends now.” I hesitated, not sure how to proceed,

“Oh, well, sure. I meant, that’s what I told my friend….but yeah, we can be friends….sure.” We had a good laugh about the misunderstanding.

I then went to meet J and his hostelmate at a bar called French 75. It is not a French bar, but just named after the drink, which is gin, lemon, sparkling wine, and some other things I can’t remember. It was quite good. Not sweet, but not exactly bitter.

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We had a great conversation on music and life. The hostelmate is a bit older than J and I and has done a lot of traveling.

“What’s your heritage?” She asked me.

“Thank you for phrasing it like that.” I say and answer her question.

“Why?”

“Because people always ask where I’m from and I say America and they say, you don’t look American, you have to be Mexican or some Asian. I’m American. I was born and raised. Just because I don’t have blonde hair, does not mean I’m not American. Asking after my heritage is like asking my background and ancestors and not implying that I’m not American.”

It’s a pet peeve and I implore everyone to use heritage or ancestors or something. I understand some Americans take pride in adding ethnicities or other nationalities to their American identity, but to me, I’m American who happens to have ancestors that originated elsewhere. Period. There truly is no one look to Americans. There is actually a recent video posted online that talks about the many FACES of America.

Day trip to Rila Monastery

The next day I went to Rila Monastery. My hostel offered a tour, but no one else wanted to go on this particular day so I went by myself, without the hostel. It’s pretty simple. The bus leaves at 10.20 from the Western Bus Station and gets to the monastery at 13. It then leaves/returns at 15/18. 22 lev round trip with a 30 minute pause.

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River in small town where we had our pause

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Random horses, there were cows on the road too

Two hours is perfect for the monastery. It’s pretty isolated. The church is beautiful, no pictures inside, and there’s a small museum of all the treasures for 8 lev. I thought it was worth it, no more than 15 minutes. There are eating places there if you forget to bring food. It’s nestled in between mountains, making it even more beautiful.

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When I got back to the hostel I ate dinner with the trio of Belgians I met the previous night. They told me about their day- they did an Escape Room (an hour game that you have to escape a room/situation with puzzles). And that right before, they had a real life escape room when they entered a wrong building and got trapped inside until a resident opened the door for them.

 A and I were still hungry after the free dinner so we went to get another bite and upon returning, joined the other two, T and L, at the pool table. Soon two Spaniards joined our group, S and N. They convinced me to go on the pub crawl with them. The hostel offers one every day except Wednesday and Thursday, weirdly.

On the last stop, I met a fellow American and we made plans to hang out the next day, which we did. The original plan was to go skiing, but due to the weather, lack of people going, and only getting 3 hours of sleep the night before, another day of walking around Sofia and souvenir shopping was perfect.

We laughed so much and it was nice talking about things from home. We came across a Dunk N Donuts and had to stop. We went into a market and discovered some cool streets in Sofia as we wandered. It was about 8 miles or 13 km in total. We were surprised since the city itself isn’t that big. We were just walking and talking.

We picked up S and N from the hostel and grabbed a beer before dinner. Because S had made us go the wrong direction the previous night, when he asked to see the map for the pub I refused, teasing him that we would get lost again. N laughed and agreed with me.

“I just have a bad sense of orientation.” S mumbled a bit miffed.

I had plans for Plovdiv the next day and was thinking it was going to be an early night.

I hung out with the Spaniards for a bit then the German S appeared. Soon German S and I joined the 3 Belgians and a group of Australians who were working in London. They were not letting me stay in, but convinced me to go to the pub crawl with them. And so I went with the thought that it would only be an hour or so.

I had such a fun time talking and laughing with all of them. Most were leaving the next day and I promised them that I would visit them in their own countries, hopefully, soon.

“Look me in the eye and promise you will come.” A told me sternly.

“I will. Belgium is on the list!”

Which made them a bit annoyed because my list wasn’t in an order of favorites, but they still wanted Belgium to be number one. Yes, I have an actual list of European countries I have yet to visit.

“But don’t go to Brussels. There’s nothing to see. Just go to Bruges.” L said. He said that a lot through the days I knew him.

“Since your country is so small, I’ll probably go.” I responded. He shook his head.

It took me 20 minutes to say goodbye to everyone and leave the bar. T gave me a weak hug, which I teased him about so he gave me a better one- it was too tight haha.

If you read my Slovakia post you might remember that I said my German friends thought I secretly spoke German as I understood or responded appropriately when they speak. This happened, but in Flemish.

L looked at me, mouth open.

“Do you speak Dutch?”

“No.” I looked at him like he was daft.

“I just spoke Dutch.” It was my turn to look at him,

“Did I answer you correctly?”

“Actually, yes.”

Well, then.

Day trip to Plovdiv

I met J, from the free walking tour, at the bus station the next day to go to Plovdiv. We took the 11 bus and got there at 13. Perfect time to get orientated and join the free walking tour at 14. The tour shows everything to see in Plovdiv, the second biggest city in Bulgaria. It’s small, but nice.

There’s two big areas- the old town and Kapana or the trap in English. The old town is like any old town while Kapana is an area known for shops and homes as well as eating and drinking places. It’s called the trap because the street are like a maze and shop owners used to drag people off the streets into their stores to buy things like a trap. There were a lot of street art, which made it so cool!

The tour walked us by 2 statues of famous residents, a great view of the city, and Roman ruins- part of the arena is visible in the street and another part is visible in the basement of the H&M store. Another ruin is the theater, what they are really known for, which is still being used for performances.

Plovdiv is known as the city of the 7 hills, but it used to have 8. The 8th hill was outside the city limit when it was founded so it wasn’t counted. When the city eventually reached it, the founders of the most popular Bulgarian beer had destroyed it to make room for their brewery, but named their beer after the hill- Kamenitza.

Actually, the city has 6 hills as the 7th was destroyed to make supplies for more streets. The tour guide said,

“You can tell people that the people of Plovdiv drank one hill and are walking on another.”

It was pretty funny.

We decided to take the 18 bus back, getting in at 20, and on the way back to the bus station we came across an empty pond.

At first, it looked like the water was frozen, but on close inspection, I realized it was concrete, no water, to which I said out loud to J.

J wanted to walk on it so we hopped down.

“Wow, it is pretty solid. Like concrete.” J exclaimed, running his foot along the surface. I burst out laughing.

“What, I don’t have any experience with ice.”

“Well, you still don’t since this IS concrete.” J looked down and realized and we both had a good laugh.

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I thought I would get a decent night sleep that night, but I met an Italian who lives in Spain with a Filipina mom. So we talked about our Filipino families for a while. It was nice and eye opening. He told me that he couldn’t communicate with his cousins in the beginning when he visited the Philippines because he didn’t speak tagalog or English and they didn’t speak Italian. Versus my experience where we all grew up speaking English and had no trouble.

The next day I met with J again and we ate at Archive Cafe, a cafe at the top of a random building. It was recommended to me. There are a lot of these speak easy bars or hidden restaurants all over Sofia. The food was delicious and the view from the roof was decent.

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We then walked around and went to the Apartment. A cafe in an old apartment that had this strong hipster vibe. It was really cool and the tea was awesome. However, in hipster fashion they were very politically minded on American politics, which I felt was unprofessional.

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I’m so glad I met J. He made me laugh so much!

I waited for my 5.30pm bus and as the minutes ticked by I saw a shuttle bus van thing with the same company name going to Skopje, my next destination. It was 5.25pm and I decided to ask the driver if he was my bus. He smiled and nodded.

This was my first time on a non-normal bus. There were about 8 of us in total. The driver played 2 B films, basic love plot with bad acting. The only thing was that they were American films dubbed in Bulgarian, which I thought interesting. Why spend money to dub a non-blockbuster movie?

When we got to the border, Bulgarian customs wanted to check the vehicle and see if any of us were suspicious, so we had to get our bags out and line up. Luckily, the officer just looked at our passports so we didn’t have to repack our bags or stand outside longer than necessary.

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Upon getting to my hostel, I forgot I changed time zones again, but was happily surprised as it gave me another hour of sleep, which I needed after all the fun I had in Sofia.

Sofia, Bulgaria was amazing and I highly recommended and I’m so glad I met all the people I did. They were all awesome. I had so much fun with them that I forgot to take photos of them to remember! I guess I’ll just have to see them again really soon!

It was a bit like a Master card commercial- cool places, awesome people, happy soul (priceless)!

More photos here 

Daily Instagram photos here

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