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Published: June 15th 2019
For well over 10 years there has been a gathering in Europe of the former members of the once popular travel blog site, VirtualTourist. Refusing to let the bonds of friendship be broken even though the website that brought them all together is gone, every year these former members vote on a proposed site for an annual gathering called a "Euromeet" where they reunite. When the votes were counted for Euromeet 2019, the winner was announced: it was Plovdiv, Bulgaria, one of two cities chosen as Capitals of Culture for 2019!!
It was an exciting choice to be sure! Bulgaria, a country we have never visited previously, would present some challenges due to the "many moving parts" of the trip. Most of us would be traveling independently and would make travel decisions as such, but many of us decided to gather for a "pre-meet" for a few days in Sofia prior to traveling to Plovdiv.
Using a popular booking site, I booked rooms for Sofia, and Plovdiv. We then booked flights on one of our favorite airlines, Lufthansa, which would connect in Frankfurt before flying on to Sofia and connected in Munich on our return. We bid on a
chance to upgrade our seats on the first leg of the trip and won so our Business Class seats on the top deck of a Boeing 747 were incredible as was the service. Even with all this comfort, neither of us could sleep any appreciable amount of time.
Because of our long transit time (about 15 ½ hrs. door to door), the inability to sleep on the plane, plus adjust to a new 7-hour time zone differential, sightseeing on Monday would be a negligible at best. Since we knew that we would want to spend several days in the capital of Sofia before going on to Plovdiv, we had arranged to arrive a day earlier than most other VT’ers who were scheduled to arrive on Tuesday afternoon. We arrived at Sofia International Airport mid-afternoon Monday. We were impressed with the quickness and efficiency of passport control/immigration here. I was glad we had ordered Leva/Lev (BGN) in advance of our trip so when hitting the ground we already had the local currency in hand.
Having read about the vagaries of taxi drivers here and the good reputation of "OK SuperTrans" taxis, we visited their airport desk and ordered a
taxi to take us to our hotel. Our driver was honest and dependable as we hoped and transported us from Sofia’s International Airport to our Hotel COOP in central Sofia, a 20-minute ride, for the incredible price of 11 Bulgarian lev equaling about US $6.25.
The COOP would be deemed the best hotel of our trip, and except for the traffic noise, our room was comfortable. Wishing to stay close to the hotel for dinner, we ventured out only a few streets over and found the BBQ where we were served by a smiling young man eager to help us. We both chose the grilled chicken breast and a portion of Shopska Salad, a small order of fries to split, and a bottle of water each. Our dinner that evening for the two of us amounted to about US $7.50 -- we were beginning to understand what a bargain traveling in Bulgaria would be. Though there was no place to eat inside, there were cute sidewalk tables where we watched city life go by for a few minutes and enjoyed seeing the trolleys and trams clickety-clack by.
In order to make the most of our time, I had
booked a long day trip to the Rila Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and Boyana Church for the next day as the Euromeet's scheduled activities did not include a visit to these. However, when the alarm rang on Tuesday morning after having not slept again on Monday night, I could not “answer the bell,” and unfortunately lost all opportunity to see these very important Bulgarian heritage sites on this trip – I was very, very disappointed in myself.
With some extra sleep and breakfast at the hotel, we felt able to venture out by late morning and found our way up to Moskovska Street to a large square where there were many wonderful sites of interest: the beautiful brick St. Sophia Basilica, the Monument to the Unknown Soldier with the Bulgarian Lion guarding the tomb – the lion countenance seemed so expressive that it became my very favorite piece of sculpture of our entire Bulgarian visit; the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Church with its splendid paintings/mosaics; and, the magnificent and instantly recognizable Alexander Nevsky Bulgarian Orthodox Cathedral with its distinctive architecture topped by gold and verdigris domes. Named for a Russian prince and Russian Orthodox saint, construction
on the cathedral began in the late 19th
century and was not completed until approximately 30 years later. The massive cathedral is dedicated to Russian soldiers who died in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 – 1878, a war which ultimately led to Bulgaria breaking free of Ottoman rule. Truly a sight not to be missed, the cathedral is full of interesting frescoes, religious artifacts, and fascinating architectural features from floor to ceiling.
I gladly paid the 10 lev photography fee here for the freedom to take as many interior photos as I wanted and it was money well spent as the frescoes are wonderful if a little hidden by the dark interior. The huge chandeliers helped some with the lighting and were quite wonderful in their own right. We purchased candles to light in memory of our departed loved ones, and to appeal for the health and safety of our living loved ones – this is a practice we try to repeat in cathedrals we visit when traveling. We didn’t have a desire to visit the Crypt below so departed though we stopped to take photos of frescoes under the vaults and arches at the entrance. I still had
the nagging feeling I did not take enough photos.
In the same area we walked through a small park where vendors were selling paintings, religious icons, souvenirs, and crafts which were tempted though we didn’t buy anything here. In the park we would see a monument and sculpture of Stefan Stambulov, considered one of the founders of “Modern Bulgaria,” and a former Prime Minister who was assassinated in 1895. The sculpture of Stambulov features a split in his head which must be a reference to the fact that he suffered a fractured skull during his assassination. Facing the sculpture, the beautiful domes of St. Nicholas’ Russian Orthodox Church provided a lovely backdrop.
By this time we hoped to find a special place for lunch and just a bit further on found the appealing “Victoria” restaurant (Tsar Osvobiditel Blvd.) with outside seating shaded from the heat of the day by white fabric umbrellas and a large tent. It didn’t take us long to order – my choice Melanzana Tagliatelle, and for Rick, the mussels. While we waited for our lunch we struck up a conversation with our waiter who was amiable and very willing to talk about his country
and his own life. When our orders arrived we found them both to be excellent and Rick’s order of mussels not only delicious but a huge portion. Finishing up, we paid our bill and tipped the waiter well, maybe too well.
Just across the walkway from the restaurant was another historical spot of interest -- the brick and rock dungeon called the Turkish Barracks where Bulgarian revolutionaries were held, including the “Apostle of Freedom,” Vasil Levsky, before he was hanged. Revolutionaries who fought against the snare of the Ottoman Empire are honored and memorialized throughout the country and are an important point of pride in Bulgaria. We followed this time up with visiting the beautiful St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox since we had only seen it from a distance earlier and the exterior was quite magnificent with its paintings, delicate and elaborate detail, the golden domes and jade green tiled towers.
Time spent in Sofia turned out to be a special part of the trip as many old VT friends would meet up here and we would be meeting new friends as well. Thanks to local VT member and new friend, Lilyana, on Tuesday night many of us had
dinner at Sofia’s wonderful and eclectic “Shtastliveca Restaurant” on trendy Vitosha Blvd. Heaping platters of tasty salads, bread and meats were served family style to the several tables of VT members and many of us ordered a meal as well not knowing that the amount of food in total was beyond the pale. The restaurant was lively and lovely with its shabby chic decor and it was a great evening but ended a bit on the dubious side when several of us learned a lesson the hard way about taking taxis in Bulgaria in general – never ride in an un-metered taxi, but if absolutely necessary to do so, agree on a price for your destination before even getting in and taking a photo of the driver and the taxi license plate wouldn’t hurt either for a number of reasons.
Thanks to my VT friend and traveler extraordinaire, Sarah, a Free Sofia Walking Tour by 365 was arranged for 2 groups of about 10 VT members each for Wednesday morning. Our group had a lovely guide, Deni (Denica), who was absolutely dynamite and never boring. Speaking nearly flawless English, Deni regaled us with important points of Bulgarian history during
the approximately 3-hour tour. As we walked we saw probably a dozen or more important sights in Sofia, and learned about their history which included the former Communist Party Headquarters, the Roman ruins of Largo Square, the Public Baths Building, Banya Bashi Mosque, Church of Sveta Nedelya, the City Garden and Fountains in front of National Theatre Ivan Vazov, and so many more notable places though we would only see the exteriors of each. This excellent and enlightening tour by Deni took us through busy streets and quiet gardens and perfectly set the stage for the rest of our time in Bulgaria.
The morning tour ended near the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, so I was delighted when everyone agreed to have lunch again at the Victoria restaurant. While my husband returned to our room, I opted to continue walking to see more of the city with good friends Josephine and Colin. What a delight to be with them! We took even more photos and then visited the Central Market, a lovely Victorian-style building of good size where you could relax with a cool drink or shop at one of the many interesting tiny stores there and my husband and I
would visit the market once again before we left Bulgaria to find souvenirs, postcards, gifts and a book about Sofia.
Back at the hotel we rested and freshened up in advance of our dinner at Izbata Tavern. Izbata Tavern, tucked away on a side street, and located down a set of stairs had a rustic, and charming appeal and we all enjoyed traditional Bulgarian dishes such as Kavarma or Chicken Satch. As Bulgarians seem to do, we lingered long at the table that night enjoying the food and each other's company. Several of us preferred to taxi back to our hotel rather than walk and the ride back was quick and cost us very little.
Having only scratched the surface of what there is to see and enjoy in splendid Sofia, it was already time to leave. Thursday dawned bright, clear and perfect for our train journey to Plovdiv. Following breakfast, a bit of last minute packing and check out, the COOP hotel receptionist was asked to order us 2 taxis for the Sofia Central Train Station as about 9 of us had been staying at this same hotel. Luckily we had no qualms with the drivers as
the taxis were metered and the shared ride over to the station cost us less than 4 lev total before tip, so split 4 ways or so it was an incredibly cheap ride.
Though the lines to buy tickets at the station were a bit long and communicating what was needed took a bit of work, nevertheless we all ended up with First Class reserved seats on the 13:20 “Fast” train to Plovdiv. As there was no dining car or food & drink trolley on the train, most of us bought snacks, juice, and bottled water, etc., at the train station for our journey to Plovdiv which turned out to be a good idea as we were to find out that the train was actually not all that fast, and the sitting compartments were more like a rolling Bulgarian sauna!
As the tracks to Plovdiv stretched out before us, I was more than excited to begin the next segment of our Bulgaria exploration though at the same time felt a certain sadness to be leaving Sofia so soon as it seemed an incredibly pleasant city and there was so much more to see and enjoy there.
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