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Published: October 1st 2019
How time flies when you're having fun! Our time in Bulgaria was quickly drawing to a close. The previous day was our last full day in Plovdiv and the greater part of it was spent exploring Asen's Fortress and Bachkovo Monastery in the Rhodope Mountains. This was followed by a few final hours in Plovdiv's Old Town were we had lunch, and bought & mailed postcards before returning to the hotel.
We were set to leave Plovdiv on Monday, the day after this 2019 Euromeet officially came to an end with our final group dinner at Restaurant Dayana (Diana) 3. There was so much to like about Plovdiv, and I knew it was going to be a bit sad to leave. It was especially difficult knowing too that some lucky friends would be staying on an extra day and would get to visit several sites: Shipka Memorial Church, Thracian Tombs, and also a site I had desperately wanted so much to see myself -- Buzludzha, the now somewhat famous but abandoned Monument House of the Bulgarian Communist party.
Opened in 1981, Buzludzha's construction began in the mid-1970's at the crest of Buzludzha Peak which is located about 3 hours
photograph credit: by nationalgeographic.com Found at search.images.yahoo.com
outside of Sophia. It's unique futuristic, spaceship-like design is eye catching while at the same time it is stark, and the profile is unmistakable. Buzludzha was left to time and history when Bulgaria transitioned to a democratic form of government from communist rule in 1989. Still, this exceptional though decaying and now dangerous building has been visited by thousands since then. For some time it was considered as a forbidding "Dark Tourist" destination, but it is quite well known among seasoned travelers and less foreboding.
Until quite recently the curious and adventurous could still enter the crumbling Buzludzha monument at their own risk in order to marvel at what remains of the extensive interior mosaics featured in the building's design. For safety reasons, this is no longer possible. Because of its iconic nature, a visit to Buzludzha will certainly be at the top of my list when next we visit Bulgaria.
On our last morning in Plovdiv, we went down to Hotel Ego's breakfast room where we had another light breakfast and shared a few minutes having a last chat with a few friends there. Soon it was time to check out and we asked the hotel's receptionist
to please call a taxi for us. Throughout our stay at Hotel Ego, the receptionists at the hotel had been easy to communicate with, friendly, helpful and very accommodating and this morning was no exception.
We arrived at the Plovdiv's Central Train Station about 10 am and Rick easily purchased 2 tickets for us on the 11 am 'fast' train to Sofia. I like train travel and was glad to have another opportunity to ride the BDZ train to Sofia. We stayed inside the station's waiting area for quite awhile and it was interesting do some people watching, and just to observe normal daily activity. Announcements were made over a loud speaker but of course we had no idea what was being said as they were given only in Bulgarian.
In the waiting room there was a wall-mounted TV playing amusing videos and though there was no sound accompanying these, we really didn't need it. We just watched and smiled a lot. As the time drew closer to 11 am, we moved out to the train platform hoping we were on the right one. There we met another of our VT Euromeet acquaintances, Michael, waiting for the same
train; since he was fluent in Bulgarian, he assured us that our ticket indicated we were waiting on the correct platform. However, our ticket indicated we did not have reserved seats. Quickly Rick returned to the ticket window, and paid another half lev each ( ,50 or about US 30 cents) for reserved seats as we had to be certain that we reached Sofia the same day without a hitch. As it happened, we had tickets for the same train compartment as Michael.
The 2-hour train ride was fine but very warm inside our compartment once again. After not sleeping especially well for the last 3 nights, I was already tired and that in addition to the lull of the train plus the warmth all combined to make me very sleepy. Michael was very friendly and talkative so I felt quite rude as it was hard for me to stay awake! On arrival at Sofia Central Train Station, we bid farewell to Michael and we looked for a taxi to take us to our next hotel which was easily done. Unfortunately, both of us being tired, we missed the fact that our taxi did not have the meter turned
on --- potentially a serious error! Although taxis in Bulgaria are incredibly cheap, frankly, some drivers do not turn on their meters and leaving you at their mercy to charge you an inflated price.
As I recall, this driver charged us about 10 lev for the ride which while still less expensive than any taxi in America, it was more than it should have been. This was the second time this had happened in Sofia. During our first few days here, Rick and I and a group of our VirtualTourist friends had attended a lovely dinner and evening at Shtastliveca Restaurant on Vitosha Boulevard; ready to return to our hotel afterwards, about 4 or 5 of us took a taxi -- none of us were really thinking for a minute that we would be taken advantage of. But, when we arrived at our destination, the driver asked for 50 lev (about US$30)! This was an incredible sum for the very short ride which was bad enough, but the arrogance that the driver showed when he realized that he had literally just taken us for a ride was what really left a bad taste in my mouth. Lesson learned: in
the future always wherever possible look for yellow "OK SuperTrans" taxis which I believe are most honest, but in any case, always make sure the meter is running
In mid-afternoon we arrived at our hotel, the Hotel Central Point on Trapezitsa St., for our last night in Sofia. I had pre-booked this hotel because it was in central Sophia, was very inexpensive, and very near the Serdica I and II Metro Stations. I originally planned for us to take the Metro to the airport the following morning. I had read that if your suitcase is of larger size, you must also buy a ticket for it which wouldn't have been a problem really. The Metro here is clean,
modern and runs about 19 hours a day. The Serdica Stations run mostly beneath the Roman ruins of Serdica, once an important Roman city and the precursor of today's Sofia. Serdica was discovered during excavations for the Metro. Streets, columns, arches, an amphitheatre, and tombs have been found. Perhaps the most significant find recently was a section of the Eastern Necropolis of Serdica which was discovered during excavations for a new hotel.
Once easily checked in at the Hotel Central Point, we settled into our somewhat strangely arranged hotel room at the end of a second floor hallway. From our room we had an excellent view of portions of the Serdica ruins which I thought was a definite plus, especially at night when the ruins are illuminated. The air-conditioning in our room worked well and so we rested a bit to recover from the much too warm train ride. But, with a good number of daylight hours still remaining, we needed to take the opportunity to venture out as Rick had not seen some of the closer sites in this part of the city and I wanted to take more photos.
Although Sofia is a large city, I
quickly got my bearings in the historical central part of town. To get to various sites we needed to go through the underground complex of the Serdica Metro stations running beneath the street in order to come up on the other side of a busy intersection. Actually this was a good thing since we wanted to explore some of the Serdica ruins again which have been preserved and are on view in the underground Metro station; it is amazing that in one area you can walk on a centuries old Roman street where the stones have been left smooth by the thousands of feet which trod them. The excavated ruins in this part of the city are fairly extensive even though some most probably will never come to light now that massive buildings cover them. We once again saw those near the St. George Rotunda and took more photos there.
Looking in one direction you can the soaring column topped by the figure known as Sveta Sophia. This lovely figure has become somewhat of a symbol of Sophia. Although the light wasn't in our favor, we were finally able to get some photos of her.
Next we made
a stop in the early 20th-century Central Sofia Market Hall on the corner. I had visited the market with friends Josephine and Colin when we were in Sophia earlier in the trip, but Rick had not been here yet. This 3-story market may not be what everyone expects, but it is quite a pleasant place for some conversation, a coffee, cool drink, or ice cream or even do some shopping for bakery breads, olives, meats, prepared foods and more. The Market Hall also functions as a gathering place for locals, mostly men, and we observed several tables filled with them chatting over coffee, reading the paper, or playing games like chess. We decided this was as good place as any to do a bit of last minute souvenir shopping for gifts for family. We walked around all the floors and found all types of items made with roses/rose oil which, as mentioned in an earlier blog, is an extremely important and very popular export commodity of Bulgaria. Although I happen to love the smell of roses, I didn't buy myself anything made from them which I now somewhat regret.
Popular Bulgarian souvenirs also include carved and painted wooden keepsakes,
traditionally-patterned, handwoven tablecloths, runners & napkins, and Bulgarian crockery such as cups, bowls, and plates produced from deep earthy red clay with traditional design patterns. I found all of this appealing and everything was so reasonably priced that even after buying several items, we still didn't manage to use all of our remaining lev. Subsequently I'd hoped I could do so at the airport but there was very little there to buy except liquor and cologne for men so we came home with quite a few lev -- hopefully we can use them if we visit Bulgaria again!
Afterwards we crossed the street and took photos of the Banyi Basha Mosque, and the public Central Mineral Baths with its lovely yellow and white brick pattern, domes and beautiful, multi-color ornamental tile work. We also took a look again at the former Bulgarian Communist Party headquarters and remembered being told that for many years it was topped by the red star symbol of the party. Deni, our Free Sophia Walking Tour guide, had told us that in the past people believed the star was made of precious stones, rubies. When the star and other Communist symbols were removed after democracy
took hold here, the people were disappointed to find out that the star was made of nothing more than red plastic!
If we kept going in the same direction we could have walked all the way to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral but we had already visited it twice so did not continue. As the afternoon light began to wane, we began the walk back towards our hotel, but we were hungry and settled for McDonald's close to our hotel. It would be totally unthinkable for some travelers to eat at a fast food chain restaurant in a foreign country as if it was some indication of being a 'tourist' rather than a real 'traveler'; but sometimes expediency is called for. I still enjoyed the food, and since we only infrequently eat at McDonald's at home, the french fries were a treat. The restaurant was clean, and well run and seemed to be very popular with the locals. The food was much less expensive than it would have been at home and I'm not sorry we ate there.
Also not far from our hotel was a little sidewalk kiosk run by a nice woman who not only sold soft
drinks, snacks and the like, but also beer. Rick was one happy guy as he really had come to like the Zagorka beer, a Czech-style beer brewed here in Bulgaria. The cost for a 'few' Zagorkas, a diet-Coke and snacks was incredibly reasonable -- I keep making the point that Bulgaria is an inexpensive country to travel in for most westerners because it is yet another reason to like Bulgaria. We returned to our room, and I used the time to catch up (not fully) on my journal writing while Rick watched some TV. From our hotel window, we also watched a young man flying a drone over the Serdica ruins until the remaining light faded and gave way to darkness.
Although our room had some strange features to it, including the bathroom which was a 'wet room' which I intensely disliked, I had the best night's sleep of the whole trip here. Whether it was because of exhaustion from not sleeping well all the other nights, or another reason, the bed here felt incredibly comfortable to me. This hotel unfortunately had no amenities whatsoever including an elevator though it posed no problems!
Before checking out the following
morning, we made the short walk to a little place for breakfast just down from our hotel. The Caffetteria, a vegetarian-friendly cafe and bakery that also offers a small but varied menu, is located on the corner of Trapezitsa and Bulevard Knyaginya Maria Luiza. It was just right for our last meal in the city. Bright and friendly, it accommodated sitting areas on two floors and also had sidewalk tables available. We ordered 2 cappuccinos, 2 croissants, and 2 bananas at the counter and paid there in advance. While a bit pricier than most places we'd eaten at in the city, the meal for the 2 of us still totaled considerably less than it would have at home. A pleasant young waitress brought the food to our table and we found the large croissants were warm and flaky, the sliced banana was accompanied by a dollop of of fresh whipped cream, and the cappuccinos were hot and just right too.
We enjoyed sitting at a sunny table with a view of this busy crossroads watching people as they went about their busy morning; I thought about what a great trip this had been, and how I wished we didn't
have to leave quite so soon. I also formulated some thoughts about how fortunate we had been to visit Bulgaria and what brought us here. There was so much to see and do, the people were friendly and so many spoke wonderful English. The local guides we had here were some of the best we've ever had anywhere. Some friends wonder why we travel to countries such as Bulgaria, and frankly, I wonder why they don't!
Our flight home, which connected in Munich this time around, did not leave until approximately 2:30 in the afternoon; however, we wanted to be at the airport no later than 11:30 am. We were beginning to worry a bit about time when the taxi we ordered took longer than normal to arrive, but finally it showed up. As our luggage was being loaded into the trunk of the taxi, Rick took a quick glance at the meter and told the driver to turn it on -- only very reluctantly did the driver do so. The drive there went OK. All aspects of check-in went smoothly and we had time to spare in the airport, and a kind gentleman driving an electric airport cart
decided he should whisk us to our gate! As mentioned there was no shopping to speak of and only a solitary bar (and no restaurant in our boarding area) was situated in the airport concourse. But the airport is modern, bright and has good facilities otherwise.
Finally aboard our Lufthansa flight on the short leg to Munich, we found our seats (a window and an aisle) to be very comfortable and we were served a sandwich and beverage after reaching altitude. Our layover in the Munich airport was mercifully short and soon we began the last leg of our 9-hour flight back home. Dinner was served on board promptly and I was very happy with my choice of yellow penne pasta in wild garlic sauce accompanied by a salad of greens and sun-dried tomato. Dessert was Crème Brûlée with almond brittle and hot coffee -- yumm!
In flight I attempted to add to my travel journal since I no longer bring a computer with me. As I wrote I remembered that upon our arrival at the Sofia airport just over a week ago we saw a "Welcome to Happy Bulgaria" sign (from the Bulgarian 'Happy Bar & Grill'
food chain) on Sophia airport's conveyances, and I can genuinely say that the time I spent here actually was happy! In my wildest dreams I never envisioned a trip here but I am happy and thankful that it did happen. And, I would love to return as there is so much we missed! I admit I'm prone to almost always remembering only the good things about any trip, but Bulgaria had truly been a wonderful surprise.
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