Saints and sinners in Sofia


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Europe » Bulgaria » Sofia City » Sofia
June 25th 2018
Published: October 4th 2018
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HE SAID...
Today we were travelling north from Gorno Draglishte to Sofia (via Rila Monastery).

We woke reasonably late following the feast and free flowing wine the night before. After gathering ourselves and our packs, we headed down to our homestay family’s small dining room for breakfast, where we enjoyed scrambled eggs, toast, mekitsi (fried dough), local jam and peppermint tea. After bidding farewell to our incredibly affable hosts, we left the homestay and headed northwards with Boris the bus driver at the wheel. We were making our way to the Rila Mountains, where we were visiting the Rila Monastery.

The monastery is located in a forested valley deep within the Rila mountain range, and when we arrived mid-morning, the air was brisk and mist shrouded the surrounding hills. While the building and surrounding structures were impressive, I was far more taken by the horrific images of sin and hell painted around the base of the Church of Rozhdestvo Bogorodichno. Devils swallowed people in torturous flames, women vomited snakes from their mouths, dragons excreted into feeding bowls from which old men were forced to eat, dogs ate from open wounds on men’s legs... they certainly knew how to exploit fear as means to manipulate the masses.

We wandered the site with busloads of other tourists, yet strangely the place did not seem crowded. I’m not sure if it was the sheer size of the place, or whether the masses congregated in one area and didn’t venture far from the main church, but I didn’t feel overwhelmed by tourists in the monastery. Given the explicit nature of some of the paintings, there may have been a few who felt compelled to hurry back to the comfort and safety of their tour bus – and I can understand why!

Armed with the disconcerting knowledge that we’re all destined for hellfire and damnation, we sought shelter in the minibus with Boris and made our way to Sofia. As I gazed out the window at undulating fields stretching to the mountainous horizon, I became mesmerised with Bulgaria’s soft pastel green and brown pastures, which every so often were rudely interrupted by industrial plants with concrete chimneys spewing smoke into the sky.

One thing I’d noticed since being in Bulgaria was the condition of the roads. They seemed to be far less bumpy than their counterparts in Romania, with fewer potholes and smoother bitumen. As we approached the outskirts of Sofia, row upon row of communist-built high rise apartments (in various stages of deterioration) began to block the horizon and darken the spirit. The city felt gritty, at least on the outskirts, but I imagine most cities do.

After checking in to our slightly out-of-the-way (but very comfortable) hotel, Ren headed straight to bed. She had developed a pretty bad headache on the minibus, and it seemed to be getting worse, so she decided to sleep it off. I grabbed a few supplies from a nearby shop and left them on her bedside table, then headed out on a walking tour of the city.

We headed over Lions Bridge and made our way to the Sofia Synagogue, then sheltered in the Central Market Hall until the recurrent (but short-lived) mid-afternoon rain passed. Feeling refreshed after an espresso, we walked a short distance to the small but welcoming Banya Bashi Mosque, then descended into the ancient Serdica complex. As I stood in front of the tiny Sveta Petka Samardzhiiska Church (an early Christian basilica that sits just below ground level in the heart of Sofia’s heavy traffic), I wondered why town planners had permitted multi-lane roads to pass so close to this historic structure. I also wondered why height limits hadn’t been imposed on surrounding buildings to allow this tiny building to breathe and exist outside the shadows of the city. Unfortunately, Sofia has been planned within an inch of its life, and this tiny basilica has had to surrender every last inch of its surrounds to progress.

Ironically, the incredibly kitsch Sofia Monument overlooks Sveta Petka Samardzhiiska Church, and judging by the number of miniature replicas for sale in tourist shops, the tall tacky monument is far more popular than the small charming basilica.

We visited the impressive Sveta Nedelya Cathedral, then walked to the calm and diminutive Sveti Georgi Rotunda, which is surrounded on all sides by solid, square and pragmatic communist-built structures. I marvelled at the decision to leave this tiny church in the midst of these gargantuan buildings, but I loved the fact that it remains intact. People were sitting around the church having lunch and chatting with friends. This was a quiet and reflective place, notwithstanding the design juxtaposition created when a pint-sized 4th century church is dwarfed by monolithic 20th century architecture.

We made our way to the National Theatre, past an outdoor antiques market and on to the imposing Aleksander Nevski Cathedral. This is a significant landmark within the city of Sofia, and I can see why. The place is massive and the architecture is staggering. As I entered the cathedral, a priest and three male vocalists were singing hymns acapella, and the sound was incredible. I initially thought it was a recording being played through a sound system, but as I walked closer to a small alter at the side of the church, I realised the men were singing unaccompanied. The acoustics inside the cathedral gave so much depth to the vocal sound, and I stood in awe as I listened to the harmonic structure of their voices.

After circumnavigating the outside of the cathedral, I crossed the road to the equally impressive (but far less grandiose) Sveta Sophia Church, which is also known as the Temple of Saint Sophia. I revelled in the calm and simple nature of this church, because I’ve realised over the years that I’m far more at ease in small, modest churches than in large, imposing ones.

The final leg of our walking tour took us to the magnificent (and very yellow) Sofia History Museum, and on the way we saw a young couple sitting in small park area at the top of a flight of stairs. He was playing guitar while looking intently into her eyes, while she was listening, smoking and smiling occasionally. I got the impression she wanted him to stop playing and talk to her. Or maybe she just wanted him to keep playing and not talk at all. 😊

After walking for close to three hours, I made my way back to the hotel to check on Ren, who luckily was feeling much better after a few hours’ sleep. Travel exhaustion impacts people in different ways, and with Ren it manifests in headaches and fatigue. After a few headache tablets and a restful sleep, she was rearing to go, so we walked to a nearby restaurant (Hadjidraganovite Kashti) for dinner. We started with a tiny earthenware bowl of complimentary (but very ordinary) wine, then we shared an appetiser (toasted bread with five dips) and a mixed meat platter. The food was good, but some of the meat was overcooked and tough. However, the atmosphere was jovial and the drinks were flowing.

We were exhausted after a long day of travel, so we headed back to the hotel and crashed. I had low expectations about Sofia as a city, but after the walking tour I absolutely loved the place. This was an easy city to navigate, and it was a beautiful city – despite its ugly, staunch and stolid communist-built surrounds. Sofia has a very average facade as you enter the city, but once you lose yourself in the old town area, everything changes.

Waking late at 7am, we realised the previous few weeks had caught up with us. This was our last day in Sofia and the last day of our holiday, because we were flying home the following day. We headed down to breakfast in the hotel’s small dining area, where I helped myself to muesli, prunes, yoghurt, toast, croissants, jam and tea. It was a simple yet enjoyable breakfast, and more than enough to fuel me through the day (or at least until lunch)!

Ren had missed out on the walking tour of Sofia on the day we arrived, so we decided to retrace my steps and visit all the same places – Lions Bridge, Sofia Synagogue, Central Market Hall, Banya Bashi Mosque, the ancient Serdica complex, Sveta Petka Samardzhiiska Church, Sofia Monument, Sveta Nedelya Cathedral, Sveti Georgi Rotunda, National Theatre, the outdoor antiques market, Aleksander Nevski Cathedral, Sveta Sophia Church, Sofia History Museum and the city’s drinking fountains.

We also visited a few new places including the Russian Church, and we made our way down Vitosha Street which I hadn’t visited the day before. This popular pedestrian thoroughfare was a little bland, so we ventured a few blocks out and found a small hippie placed called the Sun Moon Artisan Bakery and Restaurant. We’d been walking for most of the morning and early afternoon, so we settled at a table on the footpath and shared a couple of banitsas (filo pastries with egg and white sirene cheese filling) with a very welcome coffee, and a chocolate and rose cookie.

The day was dark and overcast, which was not good for photography. In contrast, the sun had been out for most of the previous day’s walking tour, providing blue sky backdrops for most of my photos. However, it wasn’t the weather that belied Sofia’s beauty from my previous walking tour – it was the city itself. There was a drabness and grittiness that I hadn’t noticed. A level of poverty, sadness and hardship that I hadn’t seen. As we circumnavigated the outside walls of Aleksander Nevski Cathedral, two old homeless alcoholics staggered towards us carrying two litre (plastic) bottles of beer. As they drew near, one of them stopped, turned unsteadily toward the church and crossed himself three times, almost falling backwards in the process. He was penniless and destitute, yet he felt compelled to acknowledge this grandiose structure with its gold-laden domes. Where on earth was his god?

As we walked back to the hotel, we decided we probably wouldn’t return to Sofia. We’d both fallen head over heels for Budapest, and we absolutely loved Bucharest, but Sofia had not impacted us in the same way. We were leaving Sofia (and Bulgaria) the following day, so we headed down to the hotel’s dining room to share our last dinner in Eastern Europe with two travel companions. The hotel is a bit out-of-the-way, so guests are offered a 15% discount to dine in. We took advantage of the deal, and the food was actually pretty good. After sharing butter and cognac roasted porcini mushrooms as an entree, I had risotto with wild mushrooms, spinach, cherry tomatoes and parmesan, while Ren opted for the fresh linguini with wild mushrooms, wine and parmesan. A very mushroom-based meal.

I had a few red wines, while Ren nursed a Bacardi on ice. We reminisced about our past three weeks in Eastern Europe before bidding farewell to our travel companions. This was a night to retire early, as we had to prepare for our long flight back to Australia.

We slept well and slept in, considering we THOUGHT we were travelling home today. However, after a purely accidental check of our flight times, we realised we had an extra day in Sofia. In all our years of travelling, this has never happened! We’d already had a small breakfast (muesli, prunes, yoghurt, croissants, jam and tea), so we decided to head back down to the dining room for a second breakfast of toast and scrambled eggs – we need to re-prepare for another last day of relaxation in Sofia. After making some sandwiches for lunch (we’d run all our Bulgarian currency down and didn’t really want to withdraw any more money for one day), we headed back up to our room.

With rain falling outside and inclement weather forecast for the remainder of the day, we settled in our room and caught up on our travel writing. It was a very fortunate oversight on our part, because it allowed us to relax and prepare for our long haul flight the FOLLOWING day. I headed out in the rainy afternoon and spent our remaining Bulgarian coins on water, beer and chips, then kicked back in our comfortable room and watched people in the high rise apartment building across the street from our hotel tend to red geraniums growing in boxes on their tiny cramped balconies.



SHE SAID...
Today was a travel day from Gorno Dragliste to Sofia, by minibus.

For the first time on the trip, I craved a sleep-in. I had slept well but clearly not very deeply as I still felt tired. It had been a big evening of excitement and drinks. Our homestay hosts had served us homemade rakia (fruit brandy), and we had also sampled a few local red wines. Although the wines were not quite to my taste, sharing drinks over a delicious home cooked meal is always a wonderful thing. 😊

I struggled awake and got ready for our drive to Sofia. Breakfast at the homestay was as big as the previous night's dinner had been – there were large platters of scrambled eggs, white cheese, mekitsi (fluffy fried dough that tasted similar to Hungarian langos and Belizean fry jacks), and toast with butter and homemade raspberry jam. The garden was full of raspberry canes loaded with ripe fruit (that we’d been picking at since we arrived), and the jam was one of the tastiest I’ve had! Given raspberries are my least favourite berry, this was a big statement from me.

Boris picked us up at 9am to drive us to the Rila Monastery in the Rila Mountains. The UNESCO listed Monastery (which is officially called the Monastery of St Ivan of Rila) is the largest, holiest and most popular Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. Tucked into a valley, it was inspired by the hermit monk Ivan Rilski and founded in the 10th century. Over the centuries and with changing empires, it was plundered, destroyed and rebuilt many times… consequently becoming a symbol of Bulgarian identity and a representation of their spiritual and cultural life.

The Monastery is surrounded by fortress-like stone walls, and it was only when we walked through the unassuming entrance gate that I realised how extensive the grounds were. The beautiful Church of Rozhdestvo Bogorodichno and the Hrelyo Tower sit in the middle of a large square that’s bordered by imposing arch-laden residential monastery buildings. The surrounding mountain scenery definitely added to the splendour too.

The focal point of the Monastery is the heavily painted Church of Rozhdestvo Bogorodichno with its yellow domes, red and white striped walls, black and white striped arched portico and vibrantly coloured exterior frescoes. The striped walls, arches and domes reminded me of Moorish mosque architecture I’d seen in southern Spain, and I wondered if this was an influence from Ottoman times.

The exterior frescoes were painted by famous Bulgarian artists, and were incredibly detailed. At first glance the frescoes looked like standard religious art, but on closer inspection they were extremely graphic in their depiction of evil. Some of the frescoes looked like sequential storytelling, but they didn’t resemble any biblical stories I knew, so I couldn’t quite follow the narrative (and the text was in Bulgarian Cyrillic alphabet).

The interior of the church had beautiful icons, more exquisite frescoes and extensive gilding on every surface. However, my attention was most captured by an enormous chandelier surrounded by a unique gold circular piece I’d never seen before. It was exquisite. Sadly photography wasn’t allowed inside the church. However, it almost didn’t matter, as the outside of the church and the painted portico were so beautiful.

The very tall square 14th century stone Hreliova Tower dominated the courtyard and overshadowed the church from certain angles. I found it to be incongruent with its surrounds, but I suppose its functional use as a refuge by the monks (when the monastery was under attack) far outweighed its aesthetic quality. And it also reflected the vast period over which this Monastery complex evolved.

As we walked around, I reflected on the fact that the inspiration for this religious complex had been a hermit who found monasteries and churches inadequate for his religious needs, and had chosen to live in a cave and commune with god through nature. And yet Ivan Rilski’s numerous followers and admirers chose to honour him with the very thing he had shunned. Humans really do perplex me.

It was a heavily overcast day which wasn’t great for photos, but thankfully it helped to keep the crowds away. Pilgrims and tourists visit from all over the world, but even though there were a few big busloads of people when we arrived, the space was so large that we didn’t feel crowded.

After thoroughly exploring the church and the entirety of the courtyard, we wanted to get a bird’s eye view of the complex, but sadly the Tower and all upper floors of the monastery buildings were cordoned off. So when it started raining, we all opted to leave earlier than planned.

We had a one and half hour trip to Sofia, and I slept all the way (as I had also done from Draglishte to the monastery). By the time we reached Sofia and checked into Hotel Budapest, I was feeling very tired and headachy, and I was kicking myself for not taking some pain killers earlier in the day. I slept until we were meant to leave on an orientation walk of Sofia with Mattia, but then made the sad decision to opt out of the walk. I slept for the entire three hours Andrew was out.

By the time Andrew returned I felt much better, but I was very disappointed that I'd missed getting to know Sofia on that sunny afternoon. The good news was that we had more time in the city, and I was very glad that I'd been able to fix whatever was wrong with me with that four hour nap. I’m a firm believer that most things can be fixed with a good cup of tea and a nap. 😊

We gathered for our last group dinner at a restaurant close to our hotel called Hadjidraganovite Kashti. It was a rambling old place with extremely kitsch traditional decor on the walls. It wasn’t until later that I realised it was a combination of four restored houses that represented architecture from the Bulgarian towns of Koprivshtitsa, Zheravna, Melnik and Bansko. We were in the Zheravna house, where traditional outfits, sheaves of wheat and wooden cart wheels decorated the walls.

A few group members didn’t join us for dinner, so we were a small enough group to have a lovely conversation over our last meal. Bulgaria is famed for its grilled meats and vegetables on skewers, so we decided to share a traditional platter of shish kebabs. We started with toasted bread and five types of dips (all with eggplant, cheese or yoghurt bases). The main dish of usukan shish skewers (with chicken, pork and beef) arrived on a really large platter, garnished with salads of grated cabbage, tomatoes and cucumber, stewed beans and roast potatoes. It was a sizable and hearty meal with which to end our trip. Unfortunately the beef was thoroughly over-cooked and tough, but all the other components of the meal were delicious.

After dinner we said sad goodbyes to Mattia and Narelle who had been with us since Budapest, and with whom we’d shared many giggles, belly laughs and good times. We walked back to the hotel with Chris and Cheryl, and made plans to catch up the next day, as they were staying on in Sofia as well.

The next morning I did some quick reading about the city. There has been a continuous settlement in Sofia for at least 4,000 years, starting with a settlement of ancient Thracians. A succession of empires (including Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman) helped to shape Sofia, and they left their influences most notably in the architecture and food. The modern era of Bulgarian independence began in the 19th century when, with Russian help, the Ottoman Empire was expelled after ruling for five centuries.

More recently, Bulgaria became an ally of Germany during WWII and was occupied by the Nazis. But unlike many other countries in the region, Bulgaria saved its entire Jewish population (estimated at more than 48,000 Bulgarian Jews) from deportation to concentration camps! After the war, Bulgaria found itself under communist rule, with Todor Zhivkov’s long and harsh totalitarianism regime lasting until 1989.

After a long and leisurely breakfast, Andrew took me on the guided tour of Sofia that I’d missed out on the day before. I was extremely impressed that Andrew was not only able to recreate the exact walk, but also gave me an excellent running commentary of the sights. Sadly it was overcast and rainy for the entire day, but I still really enjoyed getting to know my way around Sofia with Andrew as my personal guide. 😊

We started at the Lions Bridge near our hotel, which sat across the tiny trickle of water that was the Vladaiska River. As we crossed the bridge, I noticed the city was overlooked by the towering Mt Vitosha to the south…however the grey day diminished the visual impact.

We made our way to the Central Market before exploring the area that makes up the ‘Square of Religious Tolerance’… where Eastern Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Muslims and Jews all pray in their respective places of worship within a block of each other. I was a bit disappointed that the ‘Square’ wasn’t an actual place – it simply referred to an area of space in the city that encompasses St Nedelya Orthodox Cathedral, St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Banya Bashi Mosque and Sofia Synagogue. Nonetheless, apparently Sofia is the only city in Europe to have four different places of worship in such close proximity, and I think every city in the world should mandate one of these.

We walked to the Sofia Synagogue, Europe's largest Sephardic synagogue, but it hadn't yet opened for the day. We had better luck with the small Banya Bashi Mosque built by the Ottomans in the 16th century. A friendly volunteer chatted to us briefly before leaving us to look around on our own. It’s the only active mosque in Sofia and was lovely in its simplicity, but my brain imploded a little when I realised that the symmetrical architecture and paintings weren’t quite symmetrical! 😊

The ancient Serdica Roman ruins complex sits below ground level near the mosque (Serdica was the Roman name of Sofia). Sofia has extensive Roman ruins that were discovered when building a metro line, and the excavated areas are in and around existing working buildings and metro underpasses. There was a modern charm to the fact that the ruins have been preserved, but not at the expense of buildings that had already been built on top of them. However, it made photographing the ruins very challenging!

Very unexpectedly, in among the ruins was the tiny 14th century Sveta Petka Samardzhiiska Church. It was built during the early years of Ottoman rule, and was specially designed to be inconspicuous. It was so strange to see the small church positioned almost (literally) on top of the Serdica ruins, and claustrophobically positioned between a walkway, the subway and a road with heavy traffic!

From the very tiny to the very large, we crossed a square to the striking domed 19th century Sveta Nedelya Orthodox Cathedral. The hustle and bustle of the busy city instantly disappeared as we stepped into the dark and calm church. I loved it immediately. It had a real sense of spirituality and gravity, but was also very welcoming. We walked around admiring the byzantine style murals, being careful not to get in the way of people praying and kissing all the saints pictures that were positioned around the church. We watched curiously as offerings of loaves of bread and a bottle of wine were made, with a candle stuck in one of the loaves. We weren’t sure if this was for the priests’ use, or if it was eaten by the people after it was blessed.

As much as I loved the Sveta Nedelya Orthodox Cathedral, I was even more taken by the small and beautiful 4th century Byzantine Sveti Georgi Rotunda Orthodox Church that sat ringed by communist era administration buildings on three sides. Like the tiny Sveta Petka Samardzhiiska Church, it sat atop the ruins of a Roman settlement and also miraculously escaped being demolished during the Ottoman and Communist eras. The round red brick church was probably large for its time, but was now absolutely dwarfed by the complex of buildings around it. However, as Communist-era buildings go, this complex was surprisingly graceful.

We crossed in front of the elegant Bulgarian President’s Building and through the Sofia City Garden to the National Theatre. The image of the beautiful Ivan Vazov National Theatre is used in many articles on Sofia and I had been looking forward to spending some time there. Unfortunately, it wasn’t accessible and the building was obscured by temporary stadium seating erected in front of it. The weather wasn’t conducive to enjoying the lovely City Garden around it either, so we moved on.

Our main aim was to walk to the city’s most recognisable building – the colossal neo-byzantine Aleksander Nevski Cathedral. With its high bell tower and many gold and copper domes, it easily dominated the whole area around it. The cathedral is the second biggest Orthodox Church in the Balkans and a symbol of not just Sofia, but of Bulgaria… so it’s quite telling that it’s a monument to the 200,000 Russians who died in the war that liberated Bulgaria from the Ottomans. It was a dark and cavernous church, but emanated an immediate sense of grandeur with its ornate doors, soaring domes and decor heavy with marble, mosaics, murals and giant chandeliers. It might have been the fact that one of the caretakers was reprimanding a tourist for ignoring a ‘no photos’ sign, but as beautiful as the church was, it didn’t resonate with me as much as I thought it would. It’s probably sacrilegious to say this, but I loved walking around the outside of the church more than I enjoyed visiting its interior.

In the vicinity of the cathedral is one of the oldest churches in Sofia – the red brick Sveta Sofia Church which gave the city its name. The church used to sit on a hill close to the town, and pilgrims interchanged the name of the church with the town, and it stuck. It was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman era, and later restored back to a church. It’s a very old and beautiful building that thankfully hasn’t been overly restored. I loved the soaring ceiling, its minimalist decor, and the way the amazing red brickwork of its structure was on display in parts.

There were many small green spaces in this part of the city. One area held the Monument to the Unknown Soldier guarded by a beautiful lion sculpture, and we were both drawn to the lion because he looked worried and apprehensive. 😊

Another small park had peculiar stone statues and a flea market that sold antiques and the most curious soviet-era memorabilia. We walked around all the market stalls, and I nearly bought a very old second-hand Russian amber ring. But something made me change my mind at the last minute... I’m still not entirely sure why.

We crossed the road to look at the ‘Russian church’. The colourful Sveti Nikolai Russian Church with gold-covered onion domes and mosaics was extremely different to anything else in Sofia. It was what I would consider classic Russian architecture straight out of Moscow!

As we criss-crossed the compact city centre over the course of the day, we kept passing the Sophia Monument – a gold and black female statue with dark depthless eyes, holding a laurel wreath of victory in one hand and balancing an owl on her other arm. I wasn’t immediately impressed by it, but gradually became fonder of it as we passed her multiple times on our walks. From a design perspective, its sexualised form was tacky, and it just didn’t work in its location. A statue that represents the city shouldn’t be dwarfed by ugly block buildings, nor should she be upstaged by their prominent neon signs. However, it had been erected in place of a giant Lenin statue in 2001, so I’m guessing they probably didn’t give much thought to the aspect or position.

Sofia is famous for its mineral springs, and we visited the colourful red and yellow Old Turkish Baths building which now houses the Sofia History Museum. There were drinking fountains surrounding the building with warm mineral water, which apparently the locals swear by… but I wasn’t a fan of this lukewarm metallic-tasting water.

It was well past lunch time by now so we decided to walk down Vitosha Street and check out a few restaurant options. I’d read a lot about this pedestrian street and had been looking forward to strolling along it. To say we were disappointed would be an understatement. It was a commercial street with brand names, tacky shops, restaurants and cafes that looked like 'chain' stores… it could have been anywhere in the world. For people who know Melbourne, it was like Swanston Street in the early 1990s. We went looking for a recommended restaurant in the side streets off Vitosha Street, and I was so glad we did. I loved the tiny, more local side streets with small artisan shops and a much gentler vibe.

When we found the restaurant we were seeking it looked a tad too formal for what we wanted, so instead, we picked the well-known vegetarian Sun and Moon bakery for a couple of banitsas (filo pastry with egg and white sirene cheese filling) and a chocolate and rose cookie. It was the perfect meal for us, and the coffee was excellent too.

We walked back to the hotel with rain threatening, and only just got back before the heavens opened. We spent the late afternoon writing notes and packing for our trip home. It was nice to have a few quiet hours before our travels home the next day.

We met Chris and Cheryl for dinner at our hotel restaurant. It was a Hungarian hotel, but we’d heard they did amazing Italian food. I had the linguini with mushrooms and herbs, and Andrew had the risotto with mushrooms and cherry tomatoes. We all shared a dish of mushrooms cooked in butter and cognac. The mushrooms were delicious and my linguini was superb, but Andrew’s risotto was only average. It was a lovely relaxed dinner, and at the end we said our second goodbye to Chris and Cheryl, with the hope we’d see them at breakfast. We then packed and organised ourselves in preparation of our flight the next day.

We woke to a morning of heavy rain, so we decided to have a chilled morning in our room. We ran into Chris and Cheryl again at breakfast, and said our last goodbye – this was turning into the longest goodbye ever! We had been lucky that the majority of our travel companions on this trip had been a lot of fun to travel with… it makes such a difference to a travel day when you are surrounded by humorous, pleasant, easy going people. 😊

As we prepared to leave, I thought I’d send a message to my siblings about our impending flight. When I looked at my calendar to give them our arrival time… I had a moment of disbelief and slight horror. I glanced at the calendar on my iPad and realised it was Wednesday 27th… and our flight was on Thursday 28th! At some point in our travels we’d lost track of a whole day. 😱

In all our separate and together travel, this had never happened to Andrew, and had only happened to me once before (when I was travelling alone in Thailand)! So given my prior form, I was probably responsible for this oversight too. We calmed ourselves down with a cup of tea, extremely relieved that we were a day early, and not a day late! 😊

No sooner had we calmed down than we had a second moment of slight horror… had we booked one or two extra nights at our hotel? We looked through our paperwork and were pretty sure we had booked the correct number of nights, but checked with reception just in case. To our relief, it was all good.

With all that sorted, and thankful that we’d realised our error before we’d checked out and made our way to the airport a day early… we walked back down to the breakfast room to have another cup of tea and to tell Chris about our saga.

After a good laugh and helping Chris sort out the printing of her boarding pass at reception, we decided to use our unexpected ‘bonus day’ as a quiet day to do some writing and relaxing… until the rain stopped and the sun showed itself anyway. The rain didn’t stop and the sun never came out, so consequently, we only left our room once that day. We thoroughly enjoyed having a whole day of total rest, especially as we knew our work commitments were going to be quite intense from the day we landed back in Australia.

As I reflected on our time exploring Sofia, I had mixed sentiments. I’ll start with the not-so-good aspects. There was a discernible layer of grit and grime in the city. While this wouldn’t normally bother me, I think it was exacerbated by the fact that we hadn’t had time to access enough contemporary vibrancy to counteract this. I was also quite shocked to see a group of neo-Nazis strolling through the city! I know all cities have pockets of undesirable elements, but the ease and comfort with which they walked around suggested they weren’t irrelevant or marginalised. And like rats, when you see one, there’ll most certainly be many more around.

In addition to this, there was a combination of more superficial factors at play – I hadn’t been well on our first day there; we’d been expecting Sofia's usual June temperatures of high 20s/low 30s, but the weather had been determinedly rainy and cold (apart from a few hours of sunshine on the first afternoon); and even though our hotel was great and the staff very efficient, it wasn’t in the nicest of neighbourhoods.

On the other hand, there were many things I liked about the city. Despite the bombing Sofia suffered during WWII, the city centre is a wonderfully resilient mix of ancient and modern, with representation from each segment of its history. A vibrant past of rambling Roman ruins, ornate Byzantine churches, Ottoman influenced architecture and highly functional communist buildings were curiously juxtaposed by modern constructions, hectic traffic on a jumble of roads, lively green spaces, and small bursts of urban culture and street art.

While Sofia hadn’t grabbed either of us in the way cities usually do, I would be remiss in not mentioning that all our other stops in Bulgaria had been totally outstanding! And it’s just occurred to me that Sofia probably suffered in comparison to the amazing experiences we had in the cities of Veliko Tarnovo and Plovdiv. We will most likely return to Sofia at some point, but I don’t see it happening in the near future.

And thus, we found ourselves at the end of our incredible first trip in Eastern Europe. We lounged around and mentally prepared ourselves for the 30+ hour trip home… back to the icy grasp of winter’s frozen fingers!

Next, we’ll post our thoughts from planes and airport lounges as we journey home.

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5th October 2018
aleksander nevski cathedral

Home sweet home
I relished following the walk around my old home. I felt I was right there and heartily enjoyed being carried away with my memories. Best wishes Alex
5th October 2018
aleksander nevski cathedral

Re: Home sweet home
Thanks for your lovely comment Alex. The city centre was very interesting to walk around, and I'm so glad reading this took you back to Sofia :)
5th October 2018

Thoughts on Sofia
I also had a tour of Rila Monastery .... stunning frescoes and as you say some torturous and hellish scenes . Did you get to see a monks cell ? I did a Sofia free walking tour with a student ...some amazing buildings and yes communism has left its mark too. Travelling alone there I didn’t feel unsafe , I liked it, and I had sunshine !
6th October 2018

Re: Thoughts on Sofia
Those frescoes at Rila Monastery were very unique! I'm glad you had sunshine, and technically we should have too (it being late June)… the locals were very perplexed at the unseasonal weather. We never felt unsafe either (despite the sighting of the neo-nazis), but we just didn't connect with the city as much as we had with all the other places we visited on the trip.
5th October 2018

My sister’s city ;)
So Sophie has been going on and on about how we should visit Sophia. She may change her mind after I tell her about the nazis you saw! I would have freaked out! I have enjoyed your blog and now sad I won’t have any more to read :(
6th October 2018

Re: My sister’s city ;)
Hi Jess, I think Sophie should absolutely visit 'her' city! I was sad and angry when we saw those rats... but it seems to be the way things are heading in some parts. Thanks for reading along, we have two more blogs to post from this trip :)
5th October 2018

Strolling Sofia
A wonderful collection of the magnificent places of worship of Bulgaria's capital city. I have posted some in the 'Cathedrals, grand churches, mosques and places of public worship' thread in the Photography Forum. Check 'em out.
6th October 2018

Re: Strolling Sofia
We really enjoyed the wide range of religious architecture in Sofia. And it's pretty amazing that those places survived the wide spread bombing of the city. I've been slack with the Photography forums recently, and thanks for posting :)
7th October 2018
sveti georgi rotunda orthodox church

Would have liked to see that
We only spent a day or so in Sofia. Totally on purpose because we knew it is a place we could easily get back to. Next time we go there we'll have to try to locate this place because it looks like a place worth visiting. /Ake
7th October 2018
sveti georgi rotunda orthodox church

Re: Would have liked to see that
I would totally recommend visiting Sveti Georgi Rotunda Orthodox Church... it's so unique in architecture and also for being in such a weird setting. But I think we loved it most for having survived so long against all the odds! Thanks for following our trip and commenting Ake :)
15th October 2018

Free flowing wine says it all
We have friends in Sofia that would like us to visit. Your blog is a nice mix of history, churches and the wonderful foods. Not every city is going to grab your heart.
16th October 2018

Re: Free flowing wine says it all
Yes it does! It was fabulous! You're right that not every city is going to win our hearts, but I had thought that Sofia would... and I think it also bothered me that such a brilliant trip ended on a not-very-high note.
16th October 2018
sveti nikolai russian church

All Good Things Must Come to an End -- Unfortunately!
Over the weeks of your trip I have looked forward to reading each trip journal entry and now it's at an end! I found your impressions and descriptions of Rila Monastery and especially Sofia very interesting and thinking how I would view it. And, all your photos here are wonderful. Thanks for the wonderful virtual tour of eastern Europe! Looking forward to reading about your next adventure, wherever that may take you!
16th October 2018
sveti nikolai russian church

Re: All Good Things Must Come to an End -- Unfortunately!
Thanks for your lovely comment Sylvia! I'm so glad you've enjoyed our blogs. We have one more summary of the trip to post, and then we can turn our heads to the next adventure! :)

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