Coming via overnight bus from Macedonia, I was planning on spending only a short day in the capitol city before quickly departing via overnight train to my next destination. I arrived with a guy from Sri Lanka at a really uncomfortable hour, but at least I had a full day with which to attack the city. The first stop was going to be at a hostel, where I would be able to change out of my filth, store my bag, and also get some advice about how to spend my limited time there. I had marked on my GPS where this place was located, but the Sri Lanken guy had a physical map and was thus sure of himself, and so I followed. When we got to where it was located, he realized that he was looking at the wrong hotel. Awesome, we had just been walking for an hour to somewhere completely wrong. As we walked back to where I knew it was, he still doubted things and wound up getting left by me because I wasn’t interested in wasting any more of my time.
I arrived, charged my tablet a bit, ate some bread that I had in my bag and eventually gathered with a few others for a free walking tour through the city. It came highly recommended and was meant to take us around all of the most famous landmarks. The guide was younger with a lot of personality. While I assume that he told the same jokes everyday, he still managed a genuine delivery and had us amused. He was also very informative and able to answer my every question, and I did ask quite a few of them. This was one of the stops: an ancient building that has served as a place of worship (not just christian) continuously for the last 2000 years. He described it as the granddaddy of churches. We set off towards an area many call Tolerance Square, after the diversity in places of worship located there. There was a synagogue, catholic and orthodox churches, and also a mosque. He joked that the fifth was the Temple of Consumerism, aka McDonald’s. These are telltale signs of centuries of being conquered and reconquered by the Greeks, Turks, and also the Slavic tribes. An interesting takeaway from his tour was that unlike many empires, the Ottoman Turks allowed other religions to be practiced. The only difference was that they didn’t finance the construction of non-Islamic places of worship. As a result, people in the locality would often fund the creation and maintenance of small churches, such as this one. Some of the other stops included information about their Communist past, and how some of the buildings have been used over the years. Interesting too was r stop down into the metro where we were able to see the ancient walls and streets of the city that were unearthed and recycled. The city above hides thousands of years of history, and like all of these old cities any time they dig, ruins and foundations are bound to be found. They of course needed to be properly excavated, which caused the metro system to take 30 years to complete.
At one point we paused for him to explain an interesting tradition that goes all the way back to Pagan times, and is still very much alive in the modern age. In the spring, everyone wears bracelets woven with red an black thread. These are given to people and worn until they either spot a crane or blooming tree, at which point they tie them onto a/the flowering tree. This is intended to represent the creation of new life in spring after the dead of winter. The last couple stops were at some impressive churches. One was the largest in the city and the other was perhaps the oldest. The large one is called the Alexander Nevski Cathedral and was really dark on the inside and differed stylistically somewhat when compared to some of the other Byzantine churches I had seen so far. The exterior was really quite impressive as well. The other church, known as the Hagia Sophia, was a stunning example of ancient architecture. Most of the plastered frescoes had fallen away from the ceilings to reveal the masonry beneath them. Visitors to the town always identified the city by this church and over time it came to be known by it. At some point about a century ago, they had to decide whether to change the name of the city to officially represent the name of this church, which they obviously did. The tour was abbreviated slightly on account of protests that we going on over at the parliament building. The protests had been ongoing for quite a while over something or another, but today was the first day back from their summer recess so people were especially vocal of their dissatisfaction. It wasn’t violent or anything, but perhaps to quash it from getting out of hand every cop in the country was deployed and all streets in the area closed to vehicular traffic. Naturally, curious I needed to go have a gander. From what I could discern, it was just a symphony of people making the most annoying noise possible for the wall of police officers.
Again, unsure about how my lack of reservation would pan out, I got on the train and hoped for the best. In addition to my German companion, four more of her compatriots came into the compartment as well. It was a full couchette and I was very much the odd one out. They could all speak English of course, but there were certainly times when they would break into an extended spiel of gibberish. Here is a nearly worthless picture of not half the crew. The train started off and eventually someone came to the door demanding tickets. The firm “Give me ticket!” let me to believe that English was not his first language. I was unable to produce one of course, but he was willing to accept my payment on the train. The problem however came when I needed to show him my rail pass. I had it of course, but I was missing a register irrelevant to those traveling on a global pass. He was the first person to say anything about it in all my travels thus far, but after the six of us insisted in a handful of languages how it wasn’t a problem, he seemed willing to just sign the back and move on. Whew! We spent the next couple hours catching up on blogs, eating our utter crap, and sharing in conversation about myriad things. At some point we thought it would be wise to get some sleep before they kicked us off at the border.
One of the street meals I was able to pick up in Sofia was some more souvlaki. I’m sure that they call it something different here, and it certainly had a different taste, but it was still good. The white drink was not milk, but actually a salty yogurt beverage. I did not much care for the taste, but highly recommend it to anyone looking for an authentic flavor from this part of the world though. That was all for now in Bulgaria, and though I spent a mere 12 hours in the country I felt that I learned a fair bit about the people and the culture. Of course, 12 hours isn’t enough time for many countries, but because I’ll be passing though later to spend some quality time there, I wasn’t so worried about it. It was just that I was growing weary of the cultural monotony and was craving a change of pace.
Travelling on a whim is the best way to do it, because it always meets my needs. I posted way too many pictures of churches in this update, so for you, a story I shall tell. They had a political leader who was a genius of financial and economic policy. Under his guidance, he greatly improved the prospects of the country and earned Bulgaria the nickname of the Balkan Tiger. However, he was pretty ruthless towards his rivals and any who stood in his way, earning him a number of enemies. They assassinated him by axing his forehead and stabbing his face. While not considered a bad politician by the people, an artist created this interesting depiction of that man.