We arrive in Sofia early, around 4:30, and I am actually rather comfortable in the bus I have been inhabiting since shortly after sunrise. Our Turkish “keks” have been long eaten, but I am feeling somewhat sickand have no appetite. Besides, the bus is warm, and Bulgaria is cold, and I have only listened to the pirated version of Florence and the Machine’s 2009 album “Lungs” twice, so I could give it another go if given more time. But alas, it is time to brave the cold and walk the 20-30 minutes from the Central Station to the $9 hostel we have booked downtown, which is supposed to come highly rated and provide both breakfast and dinner. As eager as I am, per my new country checklist, to try authentic Bulgarian food, I am happy to put it off a couple meals if it means I will be eating for free. After check-in, the receptionist gives us a paper map of the city and circles the nearby sights, inviting us to a free walking tour the next day before showing us our cozy room with shower and without bathroom. The facilities, she explains, are down the hall and outside. While going outside at night to go to the bathroom in the below-freezing Bulgarian winter to piss is not appealing, this seemed to be the only unattractive part of the hostel, which had a professional-hippie feel, if two such things can coexist. Many of the clientele were either Europeans on Christmas break for school or work. That, or else they were Anglophone startup proprietors who did business in Eastern Europe and were either digital nomads or actively were seeking investors in the city and its environs. Bulgaria, as the hostel price indicated, is cheap and worth a stop for any backpacker in Europe on a particularly thin budget.
Dinner, as can be expected, had no meat. However, we had a choice of spaghetti, rice with vegetable stew, and fried eggs with chopped cabbage. Craving protein, I ate the latter and, given it was free, found it hard to be disappointed. Exhausted from illness and travel, I did some quick school work, enough to put me through to the next morning, took a Benadryl, and curled up to go to sleep. A long stretch of unconsciousness turned out to be exactly what I needed and while I awoke still congested, I felt I had recovered the energy of a healthy person.
As is the burden of the twice-enrolled student in an ‘intensive’ winter term, I had to do some actual work that morning and allotted roughly two hours to take an exam while my dad joined the free Sofia walking tour. While I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to see the tour, I was also happy to be able to stay in the warmth and recover a little more while my dad could do some more tourist activities. Over breakfast, we met an interesting twenty-one year old guy who, versed in the coding arts, had actually started a freelance online advertising company and employed a couple coders in Ukraine. On a semi-break, he was in Bulgaria on a scouting mission to see where he might like to work from next. He tagged along with my dad on the tour, and ended up joining us for the better part of the day, after I had met up with the walking tour. I started with the group near the city’s mosque, and continued with them as the personable tour guide Niki gave emphatic accounts of what Bulgaria was like during communist rule, and the recent political history of the country.
From the tour’s end at the city’s namesake, the St. Sofia church at the center of town, we went to get banitsa, which is supposed to be the most authentic Sofian, and perhaps Bulgarian, food. It consists of a flaky croissant crust and a dry cheese filling and, in the restaurant we went to, was served on a piece of paper towel. We intended to see a few more of the city’s sights and head to the bus station, but when we checked the times to Bucharest, our next stop, the several bus schedule websites pointed to the next bus leaving after 11 o’clock and getting to the city around 5 or 6 am. We considered going straight to Belgrade and cutting out Romania and Moldova (as was the original plan) but first wanted to check what flights were scheduled flying to Chisinau, an idea we considered in Istanbul but failed to close the deal. Our phones showed a $204 flight via Istanbul with an 8 hour layover. Would it be worth going back to Istanbul? Could we even go back? I had thrown away my E-visa but still had my backup buried deep in my bag and found that it was a multiple entry visa and was, of course, still valid and would be for another few months.
We quickly jumped on the tickets, learning from our previous mistake, and went back to the hostel so I could finish my evening’s schooling in advance. Next, we ate a dinner in a restaurant downtown that was created in the wine cellar of a man in the 1800s. The homey old-world vibe felt very Bavarian, from what I would know from 19th century European decor. We drank local wine in the spirit of the cellar, and ate extraordinarily savory strips of pork and lamb in gravy. As our last stop in Sofia, we stopped by the historic synagogue which surprisingly dates back to the early 1900s. Apparently, Bulgaria acted in defiance of the holocaust, effectively delaying complying with Hitler’s demand for the nation’s Jewish community for the duration of the war.
The subway takes us to the airport for 1.6 lev (about $1.20) and we board our plane to Istanbul. The flight is to be short, and the immigration man asks if I need a visa to go to Turkey when I give my passport and visa to him. He also notes that the date I was stamped into Bulgaria that day, not the previous day as was actually the case. He and I have a laugh about it all and I walk past, surprised by his pleasantness. I enjoyed my brief time in Bulgaria, and would readily return in warmer weather.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.