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Posts Tagged ‘sofia’

Time to Tour in Sofia

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I’m a bona fide introvert, and I really prefer to travel solo, but every so often I get the urge to take a tour. Let someone else do the work, I think. It would be nice to have some traveling companions in the middle of a trip, I think. Sometimes it works out well, sometimes not.

Looking back, I’ve mostly used just two companies: Intrepid (Beijing to Islamabad, Laos, Cambodia, Lombok, Morocco), and Rick Steves (France, Turkey, Greece and Sicily). Intrepid has great itineraries, and great prices, but accommodation can be basic. RS tours are more comfortable, but the groups have gotten bigger and the prices higher, and now all the tours go to places I’d as soon visit on my own. But then he added a new tour to Bulgaria, and the feedback was good.

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So I had come into Sofia prepared to switch to group mode, in which I try to be a good sheep. My hopes of being able to check in early at the tour hotel, the rather upmarket Crystal Palace, were dashed, but they did record my passport details and held my bag. Having missed breakfast, I set off down Sofia’s yellow brick road (yes, it’s real, although a bit on the pale side) looking for food more than sights. I did appreciate my first look at the main cathedral, and at the Russian Orthodox church, and was interested to see that a large and lively children’s fair was sponsored by an American friendship organization.

After good mushroom soup and a not so good sandwich at the Bulgaria cafe I returned to the hotel to find the new person on the front desk had no record of me, and took a good quarter of an hour to decide I really was supposed to stay there. Then I had to get them to fix the AC.

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At the start of tour meeting I found that we had 22 people on the tour – fewer than my last Rick Steves’ tour, but more than I had hoped. All were well-traveled – one was a travel agent – and I got on really well with a couple of the other singles. However, I was surprised to find several extreme right-wingers in the mix – previous tours had been rather more left of center, and I found it annoying that a number of people clearly thought that “no photo” notices didn’t apply to them.

The tour leader, Lyuba, had prepared welcome packets for us, with background information on Bulgaria, each day’s itinerary, and a page on the Cyrillic alphabet. That was well beyond what any previous leader had done, and she was to prove a very engaged and informative guide. I had already been coping with the Cyrillic alphabet in Serbia, but since I’d used it on previous trips to Russia and Ukraine I wasn’t having too much difficulty. Once you realize that “pectopah” means “restaurant” you’re off to a good start.

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That first evening we retraced my route from earlier in the day, on the way to dinner, and the next morning we set off on a more extensive and very ecumenical walking tour, taking in the Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral, the Russian church, a mosque, and a synagogue, along with a number of official buildings and source of spring water popular with locals.

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I really wanted to see the Boyana church, not included on the tour, and after a quick lunch in a nearby indoor market, I set off with one of the other singles. Unfortunately, we got “taken” by our taxi driver – I wanted to negotiate the rate, but my companion was happy with the meter, which turned out to be rigged. However, the church, and the nearby Museum of History, were absolutely worth the trip. The frescoes in the church were painted in the mid 13th century, and their custodian – a real character – was eager to point out that they predated Giotto, while showing the same realism. I found one of St. John of Rilla, whose monastery we would visit the next day, particularly arresting.

Visitors only get ten minutes in the church (no photos allowed), and we were very lucky to be able to go right in – the day before the wait had been very long. We also had the museum pretty much to ourselves, and I had a nice time admiring the Thracian gold, as well as the building itself, an interesting holdover from the Soviet era.

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To Sofia via Nis

I had ridden the bus from Belgrade to Novi Sad, and the train on to Subotica, in reasonable comfort, but I made the mistake of taking a local train back from Subotica. Knowing it had a four digit number had given me concern, but the timing was much better than the later three digit train. My bad, although it had airplane-type seating, it had no AC, and without AC you’re actually better off in the really old-fashioned compartment-style carriages, where you can get a cross-draft.

So I was pleased to settle into a modern coach for the long haul from Novi Sad to Nis, where I had decided to break the trek to Sofia. But no sooner had we reached the main highway than we had a flat tire. We limped to the nearest service station, where it took only the announced twenty minutes to put on the spare, and where the passengers had access to toilets, coffee, snacks and shade, but we were clearly traveling below normal speed, and were switched to a much older coach in Belgrade.

My seat-mate was a woman about my own age, who made a point of telling me that she was really Hungarian, rather than Serbian. The country south of Belgrade was much hillier than the flat plain to the north, with plenty of woodland, and I was in reasonably good shape when we finally reached Nis. But the bus station had no services to speak of, I didn’t have a map of the town, and eventually I took an expensive taxi to the Hotel DuoD.

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Situated in the heart of the cafe district, on a pedestrian-only cobbled street, above its eponymous restaurant, it was much quieter than I feared, but the under-floor AC was hopeless. It didn’t cut the humidity, it didn’t really cool the room in the afternoon, and it was very cold to walk on at night. I can’t imagine it works much better as a heating system in the winter, either. Still, I had a comfortable, if old-fashioned, room, where I slept well.

After I checked in I went off to investigate the fortress, where I found another very helpful T.I. before succumbing to a starvation attack. The fancy Hamam restaurant inside the fortress walls provided a tasty but very tough goulash, although it had more oil than broth. Then I followed the T.I. lady’s instructions and took a bus to the train station, where I bought a ticket for the mid-day train to Sofia (and Istanbul) as the buses either left in the middle of the night or arrived in Sofia after 10:00 pm. The train was supposed to get in around 6:00 pm….

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I decided not to trek to the other side of town to see the remains of the gruesome Tower of Skulls, a relic of the Turkish victory at the battle of Cegar in 1809. I did admire a couple of statues, and once again appreciated the parks and trees that seem to be a feature of Serbian towns. Dinner, which I ate in my hotel’s restaurant (there wasn’t much to choose between the ones lining Kopitareva), featured good chicken and fries, but veggies that managed to be undercooked and burnt at the same time! I consoled myself with a reasonably cheap glass of Cointreau.

I needed consolation rather more the next afternoon, as the international train to Istanbul put me forcibly in mind of the train ride I had suffered through from Istanbul to Sofia back in 1974, when the Turkish-Greek war over Cyprus closed Istanbul airport, and the tourists were crowded into carriages added to the back of the Orient Express – fifteen hours sitting up with no restaurant car and abysmal toilets.

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I would not have been surprised to find that the two carriages headed for Sofia dated from 1974, although this time I only had to share a compartment with two people – a couple of Swedish backpackers. At the Serbian border the engine disappeared, leaving us sitting in the sun for what felt like hours. After we finally crossed into Bulgaria it was to embark on another long wait, for no apparent reason, as checking passports took very little time, and the ineffectual search for contraband not much longer. (There actually was contraband, we had watched it being hidden, and later watched it being retrieved, but it wasn’t where the guards were making a big show of looking.)

All that sitting around, steaming in the heat, meant that I arried in Sofia in darkness after all. The Swedes had been told they would be moved to a different train, with better carriages (they had paid for couchettes) in Sofia, and with the other Istanbul passengers disappeared in a rush. I trekked upstairs to the main hall where I found a functioning ATM and not much else besides a series of taxi touts. I had intended to take a tram to my hotel, but after one of the touts pointed out the route to the trams – down a dark underpass – and I recalled warnings about the station district after dark, I took the helpful tout’s taxi instead.

It was the next morning, when I discovered I was too late for breakfast, before I realized that we had arrived even later than I had thought, as there was an hour’s time change between Serbia and Bulgaria. I spent one night in the Hotel Niky, thinking the tour hotel too expensive, and my room was really only acceptable for one night. The hotel restaurant, on the other hand, with a stream running through the middle and plenty of happy-looking locals, was fine. I appreciated my first taste of Bulgarian wine, too.

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