Bulgaria is the next part of our trip. It’s a long day sitting on the various trains but easy and a great way to see a bit of the countryside. The three hour trip back from Brasov to Bucharest meant we arrived at lunchtime, found a coffee shop and stocked up on some goodies to keep us fed and watered. There's no restaurant car and it takes nine and half hours from here to Sofia, so that was the best excuse to head out and fill the backpack with some local delicacies. We’d already discovered some of their street food - hot Covrigi or better known to as Romanian pretzels. Its just a piece of dough twisted, made into different shapes, dipped in water so it has this shiny finish to it, then baked. They’re usually topped with salt, various nuts or seeds or sometimes sweet, come hot off the press and taste sooo good for next to nothing. There are holes in the wall throughout the city serving this basic street food and you can soon spot a good one as there’s large crowd of people gathering. We soon learnt to follow the crowd and dig in.
So we topped up the caffeine levels and put plenty of food and drinks in our bags for the next part of the trip. To our surprise there were only two carriages and very basic. A few other passengers embarked but by the time we reached Sofia there were only two other people on the whole train. It felt like we’d stepped back in time as we travelled for hours across this very flat, uninteresting, desolate, snow covered area. Nothing much to see until we crossed over the Danube, stopping at Russo, the border into Bulgaria. You feel a bit vulnerable as they stride onto the train clad in serious uniform and fully armed, comanding your passport, not in a threatening manner but you certainly weren’t going to question them, then sit tight hoping they’ll return with it. Once we’ve had the okay and passports safely tucked in our bags again we depart and wait around thirty minutes in this big, empty, cold, concrete station hall for the next train. Our first introduction to Bulgaria.
Arrived in Sophia at 11.30pm and the four of us decide to walk to our apartment as it only 20 minutes away and we’ve just spent the last nine hours sitting on a train!!
Turned out to be a little bit of a test as the directions on the Airbnb website were well off the mark, our new hosts couldn’t be contacted as they’d left for the weekend and weren’t replying to either texts or calls. So here we are after midnight on the back streets of a foreign city, freezing cold, a few stray dogs roaming, the odd person lurking on the corner and a policeman who wasn’t the slightest bit interested. A bit of a test but we finally found it as were all too stubborn to give up!!!
Next day we did a walking tour of the city, still bitterly cold but a dry day and no snow. Great to pick up a bit of history and get a good overview of both Bulgaria and Sofia in particular. A lovely enthusiastic guide, part time actress, keen to educate us and instil some of her passion for this wonderful 6000 year old city.
Sofia has a complicated past and is filled with a unique combination of European and Soviet styled architecture alongside some stunning Greek Orthodox Churches and mosques. During the Ottoman rule many prominent churches were converted to mosques and at one time there were over 100 mosques throughout the city.
Sofia, the capital, with a population of close to 1.5 million people, is now developing a reputation for cheap weekend getaways such as stag and hen party’s. Not the ideal visitor, but this does mean exposure and growth in tourism for this developing, modern city , also known for its beautiful scenery and Vitosha mountain ski resort close by.
Since Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007 it has, and continues to, work towards greater intergration. Also not unlike parts of Romania, Sofia was even listed among the top 10 cities to launch a 'start up’company. Has lightning fast internet, which is always a plus for our kind of travel.
For us it held some intrigue, and fascination and took us out of our comfort zone, especially in the market where I was refused service because I helped myself to fruit ie I literally wanted to choose the fruit before buying.
But perhaps the lack of good publicity over the recent years that we’d read about shouldn’t be taken literally. As we certainly felt safe, most people were friendly and helpful, surprised most spoke a little English and genuinely enjoyed our time in a country not overrun by tourists.