As I have in the past, I like to write about my travels. Though Stranger Aeons is not per sé a travel blog, travel is a great way to see the weird and wonderfull world we live in and the strangeness that it has to offers. This blog is about my trip to Bulgaria’s capital Sofia.
Arriving in Bulgaria, I was eager to find the Vasil Levski stadium. In this old, fifties stadium the Bulgarian National Team will play agains the Netherlands. Though I’m not highly national when it comes to football, I love the match experience and this I didn’t want to miss. Named after a revolutionary hero, the stadium may be old and lacking certain facilities, the pride of the fans is no less. Right outside the stadium you can buy cheap tickets and enjoy the game. I watched the Bulgarian underdogs beat my country by 2-0. The atmosphere was euphoric. A great start to my stay.
Clean streets and a clash of cultures
Sofia looks remarkably clean in the center, there is hardly any garbage to be spotted on the floor. The smaller shopping streets are filled with diverse buildings, wonky steps and really feel like Eastern Europe. Greece had a similar vibe to me and the Cyrillic writing definitely adds to the feeling of alienation.
If you look a little deeper you soon find that the nations checkered history is all over the city. From a Soviet time shopping mall to beautiful mosque buildings and orthodox churches. Being in the city at the end of March, I missed the fact that there were elections, so museums were closed, but plenty of ancient chapels and churches are easy to visit. The wondrous mystery of an orthodox mass, the patriarchs with their beards and robes, it’s a thing to behold. It’s a city that has many contrasts. From the fancy fast food chains and the shopping streets to the pretty university grounds, from the hip coffee shops to the market near the Alexander Nevski cathedral where they selll communist and Nazi artifacts.
Sofia has a rough charm to it, for those that can appreciate it.
Fortunately for us our hostel (Hostel Mostel, great place to stay!) offered a bus trip to the Rila Monastary up in the mountains to the south. A 2 hour drive, but well worth your money and time. Stopping halfway at a road restaurant, you see the other side of Bulgaria. Impoverished, rather smelly and derelict. A family apparently ran the restaurant but calling it a restaurant might be a bit much. Still, it feels like the place is on the rise. Modern cars are parked next to the place and though garbage seems to be discarded randomly, there seems to be a pickup service for that.
The Rila Monastary is one of the most tourist parts of the country and in warmer months it’s crazy busy in the narrow valley with camping, barbecuing and partying people. We find the ancient monastary as a beacon of rest, impressive among the high, fog crowned mountains. Before visiting we drove a bit further to visit a cave where founder St. Ivan would have lived as a hermit. A strange place it was, with an era of mystery and the unknown, this place is special and surely worth visiting, though I doubt its impact may be as large in other seasons. Check out the amazing nature surrounding it, because you are in a fairy tale landscape.
Metal music on a night out
Though it doesn’t seem to be a massive scene, Bulgaria has a metal scene with some outstanding acts. The bar Live & Loud is hidden in a side street of the big shopping lanes and has a distinct industrial vibe. Drinks are cheap and the music comes from YouTube video’s. While we were there, the Ostring Bulgaria contest took place, a band contest for various countries in the east of Europe. We checked out Slave Pit, a band sounding a lot like classic thrash. It was good but we set our sights on another bar, but later we returned for The A.X.E. Project. A great place to check out for the metal loving traveller.
Food & Drink
Now, I’m a vegetarian, so finding out that my hostel offers both breakfast and dinner that is vegetarian really saved me a lot of work. There is plenty of street food available though for those who are not of this persuasion. Pizza, pastry and kebabs seem to be the main foods that you can purchase, but in the center a sandwich shop is easily found. I was surprised at the amount of vegetarian options in the city though and would particularly recommend the Sun Moon restaurant, with conscous food and a very friendly staff. It’s close to the center and hard to miss for it’s distinct look and little bakery.
You might be someone like me who likes his craft beer, but don’t bother going to the Ale House. It’s not the place you are looking for. A small menu and if you’re lucky an atmosphere of getting a pile of food, shoving it down and guzzling beers by the litre (if you’re unlucky it’s just empty). Surely you can go to the Irish Harp Pub, but if you really want to get some good special beers form this neck of the woods go to Vitamin B. The craft beer shop has a modern vibe, clean and fresh with a wide selection of beers. Yes, they have a special Mikkeler connection, but if you are interested in the Bulgarian specials this is the place. Also, the staff actually knows the beer, even the taekwondo girl that served us was well versed in their flavors and keen to help.
So, should you go?
Bulgaria is a country often shunned, perhaps for the Cyrillic writing and the endless stereotypes. Sofia is a city with a long history though, but it is very much alive. Prices are very acceptable and the capital really offers a lot to those who give it a chance. Please go, you will love it here.
photo’s by Justina Lukosiute