Bulgaria is one of those countries we have traveled to more by chance than specifically because it was high on our list of destinations. The visit was part of a mini tour of central and south-eastern Europe that we embarked on. We had already been to Austria, Hungary and Greece on our trip and used Skyscanner's 'everywhere' function to decide our last destination for us. The flight from Athens to Sofia (Bulgaria's capital) was only £9 per person which were simply too good to turn down. Nick had always wanted to visit the southern Balkans as a result of his obsession with the medieval history of the area. This post will outline the places we saw, the things we took part in and our highlights for the trip.
Before we arrived
As always, we purchased our currency before we left, which admittedly seemed to confuse the staff at the exchange, requesting small amounts of Euros, Hungarian Forint and Bulgarian Lev. The exchange rate was good as Lev isn't an overly strong currency, although it had to be ordered in, so it was a good idea to buy it a few weeks before we had to leave. As always we booked our accommodation through Airbnb and on this occasion ended up at a hostel, although with a private room. Most of the places we found in and around Sofia were very reasonably priced, especially when one compares it to the cost of living in Western Europe.
When we arrived into Sofia airport it became clear that English proficiency wasn't great among most people, so much like in Hungary a week or so before, google translate became a close ally of ours again. After going through customs at Sofia airport we were directed to a minibus which I can only describe as a soviet relic with the hammer and sickle painted over. The bus driver shouted what I can only imagine as being 'All aboard!' and all 30 of us began piling in, much to the utter dismay of a typically polite American couple who ended up having to wait for the next bus. Even as a Brit and Canadian who perhaps usually wouldn't get amongst the chaos, when in Rome... Or perhaps, when in Sofia.
As our bus entered the city proper, the feeling that this country has only lately broken the 'shackles' of a hurtful regime become apparent. On one side of the street there are huge billboards advertising the latest hair care product by L'Oreal, and on the other side of the street small residential buildings with broken windows and often missing doors. Another very prominent feature of the city was its half finished apartment buildings, which we later found out was a result of investment made right before the economic downturn that hit in the mid 2000's.
Fortunately we arrived into the accommodation early in the day, which gave us time to explore some of Sofia on foot. We headed to the city center which revolves around The Former Communist Party House (below). The area was utterly deserted when we arrived just before midday, which provided us the chance for some good pictures. In front of the Party House was a viewing area to see some of the Roman and Byzantine ruins often found under the modern city, something we both appreciated a great deal as history buffs.
One of the highlights for us that we found in the city center of Sofia was the quirky little Church of St. Petka of the Saddlers (above). Who the Saddlers are still puzzles us, even after a couple of fleeting google inquiries. The church itself stands around an excavated area, which only adds to its unique character. Although at the time we visited, the church was shut, I've seen from other travelers online that its interior is well worth seeing if you get the chance. Although still used and a part of Bulgarian Orthodox Rite, the church is minuscule and its architecture is original to its 1500's build.
Thanks to the beautiful church of St. Pekta and his saddlers, we wanted to explore more of the religious architecture of the city and headed further into the capital to find The Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky. Wandering the tight Sofian streets towards the cathedral with the help of the omniscient google maps, suddenly the buildings disappear and the grand cathedral appears in the middle of an intersection. The cathedral is one of the biggest Christian buildings in the world and its name pays homage to the Russian soldiers that lost their lives during the Russo-Ottoman wars that liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman yoke. The contrast between the brilliant white walls, strong green roofing and glistening gold domes is awe inspiring. The sheer size of the building as well as its near perfect symmetry from every angle made taking a picture of it a little difficult, but an enjoyable task all the same.
Going from the strong Balkan sunshine into the dark cathedral forces your eyes to adjust, upon regaining focus immediately you are confronted with beautiful fresco adorned walls, golden lining on every wall and huge open spaces overseen by gargantuan unsupported domes. It took a while to take in the sheer size of the building, even though ample indication was given from the outside. Although entry is free to the cathedral, you must pay 10 lev to take photos of the inside and 30 lev for a video. You will get a little photo permit from the lobby. Obeying the signs on the entrance to the cathedral, we made sure flash wasn't enabled while taking pictures of the frescos and the domes, as all other tourists were around us, yet for some reason one of the older priests in attendance took offence to something we were doing and began shouting and attempted to grab the camera by force from around Nick's neck. We were both totally taken back by what can only be described as an attack. This random act of aggression totally spoiled an otherwise great experience at a beautiful national source of pride for Bulgarians. We know that you must pay for a photo permit but he did not give us any time to show him we had one. Our suggestion is to either skip going inside although or keep this pass out at all times and give it to the priest immediately to stop being manhandled.
After the trip was over and we were back home and a little detached from the emotion involved in such a strange experience, we left a review detailing what happened on TripAdvisor, so others know to be a little cautious while enjoying the cathedral, however after a day the review was taken down with no explanation. It was this which has made us apprehensive about trusting TripAdvisor, we generally use it now with more than a pinch of caution.
Deciding not to let an irritable priest ruin our time exploring the religious landscape of Sofia, we headed over to the Sofia Synagogue, which was free to enter although asked for donation. The synagogue, much like the Orthodox Cathedral, was adorned in bold, powerful greens and blues and lots of exquisite gold decoration. Upon entering, we were greeted by the Rabbi who was keen to give us a tour of the synagogue as well as a run down of its history and the history of the Jewish people in the region. His English was superb, to the point where his innate charisma translated into his second language. As we finished walking around the building with him, we sat together on one of the pews and spoke for some time about history, politics and things to do in the area. Perhaps we appreciated the experience even more so in contrast to the earlier happening at the cathedral, whatever the reason our time at the synagogue was very enjoyable. After giving a donation, we left and made our way back to our accommodation to have dinner and get an early night for the early morning tomorrow.
Rila Mountains and the 7 lakes
Our second day in Bulgaria started particularly early, at 7:00am as we had booked a tour, which nicely picked us up from our Airbnb at 7:30. Although we usually never use tour operators on our trips as we find they are poor value for money, on this occasion thanks to Bulgaria's less than ideal infrastructure and that English wasn't widely understood by many people there, we decided it was the most comfortable way to get into the famous Rila Mountains. The operator who ran the tour to the Rila mountains was full of energy and spoke good English, although this wasn't enough to stop Nick from catching up on a little more sleep in the back of the minibus. The drive to the mountains took about two and a half hours, the second half of the journey as we transitioned from the city to the countryside was utterly beautiful, full of streams, waterfalls and dense forest. As we arrived into the mountains, we took the ski lift at the base for a small extra fee. Some of the other people on our bus decided not to take the lift for a longer walk, however, in hindsight we all found this was necessary to be able to complete the hike at the summit of the mountains and see the lakes.
The hike was a four hour round trip, and some of the terrain was a little difficult at times, as such I wouldn't recommend it to people with mobility issues, however the area at the top of the chairlift (where the trail begins) provides amazing views in itself and has a place to get food and drinks. Neither of us wore appropriate footwear, Caitlin in heeled boots and Nick in suede loafers, yet we managed to reach the summit and see all seven lakes, if we do the trip again though, hiking boots will be packed! While the beginning of the hike was a little busy, the length of the hike coupled with peoples varying walking speeds meant pretty quickly we were alone on the trail.
As we neared the summit of the mountain, we encountered more of the majestic glistening lakes. Without the pull of a tide and oddly no wind, the surface of the water was untainted and became almost a perfect mirror image of the exposed rocks, hardy grass and perfect blue skies. The hike gave picture perfect views at every turn, it was difficult to choose our favorite pictures to share with you.
As the hike and the drive to and from the mountain range took such a long time, we decided it would be the only exploration we would be doing that day, and after arriving back into Sofia, we decided to find a cheap place to eat out. By accident, we stumbled across Midpoint, a great little restaurant near the heart of the city, mixing Dutch and Turkish cuisine. The owner and staff were so friendly, the place was clean and the food was great while staying reasonably priced. After such a long day on our feet, we decided to stay in that evening and watch a movie to prepare for our next excursion.
After waking up early and buying a couple of sandwiches from a local convenience store, we headed to Sofia's central bus depot in order to catch a coach to the historic city of Plovdiv (Philippopolis for the historians reading this). After spending the day before enjoying the natural beauty Bulgaria has to offer, a trip to the historic center to immerse ourselves in some of its history seemed fitting. The coach journey lasted just under two and a half hours, providing a good opportunity to put our headphones in and stare out of the windows at the Bulgarian countryside. Although much of the journey was by highway, the coach passed through a couple of very quaint little towns that had obviously seen much less investment that the capital where on several occasions we saw guys carrying their produce on carts.
As soon as we arrived into Plovdiv, we were confronted by a vastly different atmosphere than that of Sofia. The walk from the bus drop of to the city center was lined with public artwork, the streets were cobblestone and filled with independent cafes. The city center itself was a quaint mix of both ancient buildings and super modern stores, we also noticed an increase in tourists, which fortunately meant more people able to speak English. As we wandered the streets looking for somewhere to have lunch, we followed a particularity beautiful street lined with ottoman era buildings, the street took us to a look out that gave us panoramic views of the city, as well as a great place to enjoy traditional Bulgarian cuisine not too far away. We later found out that Plovdiv (Philippopolis) was founded on 7 hills, of which two can be seen in the photo below.
A highlight of our trip to Plovdiv has to be stumbling across Roman and Byzantine ruins all over the city. It felt almost although the city had as many roman ruins to offer as places in Italy, yet without anywhere near the number of tourists along with them. Back in the city center we found the Ancient Stadium of Philoppopolis (Below left). Sitting a few meters underneath the modern city pavement, the huge stadium seating area made of white stone is exposed and visitors are allowed to sit on it. Our favorite roman building in the city however has to be the Ancient Theatre of Philippopolis (Below right). With only a meager entry fee, visitors are allowed to explore the roman theatre, which is in near perfect condition and still regularly hosts plays and musicals. The theatre again comprises of the white stone seating area, white stage and beautifully preserved columns and statues adorning it. We would recommend this above all else in the city. We spent well over an hour looking around the stage and relaxing on the seating rows. It still shocks us how few tourists were in the theatre despite its obvious historic beauty and significance, the same building in Greece or Italy simply wouldn't allow you the peace to explore on your own.
Rila Monastery and Boyana Church
On our last day in Bulgaria, we decided we would use another tour operator, that would take us back into the Rila National Park, although this time in order for us to see the famed Rila Monastery and Boyana Church. This tour picked us up at the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the middle of Sofia as opposed to from our hostel yet left equally early in the morning. Unfortunately from the beginning it was clear that our guide on this occasion was having a bad day and showed a quick temper and very little patience, snapping that it would be best to pay to use the washroom at his friends restaurant across the street before we set off, as the driver will not stop again until we arrive. It seemed like a strange way to greet people you will be spending the next half a day with, so we both decided this would be more of an expensive taxi service than a guided tour and promptly put our headphones in and tried to tone him out.
The drive into Rila was as beautiful this time as it was the first time, two days prior although we took a somewhat different route into the national park. We kept climbing into the hills and mountains, the roads becoming ever more winding and thin before we finally came across Rila Monastery. Caitlin had read up on the monastery before we left, and as such wore pants and a long sleeve shirt, as women baring any skin in the monastery was not allowed. On arrival it became pretty clear this rule was enforced on a case by case basis, which seemed a little unfair, the monastery was however giving out shawls to women who hadn't looked this up prior. The monastery itself was gorgeous, nestled at the bottom of some steep hills and walled off on every side, it perfectly epitomized the hermetic lifestyle the monks pledged themselves to. The church itself was adorned with black and white strips on its columns, contrasting with the typical eastern orthodox frescoes on the inside and the domes. While the church was undoubtedly beautiful, the monastery in general had little to offer to merit the time spent there and time it took to get there. This coupled with the endless rules and regulations sternly enforced at every opportunity and the typical Bulgarian coldness which bordered on rudeness, made our time at the monastery feel more like a punishment than a chance to marvel at a historic wonder. Trying to kill time, we left the monastery grounds and ended up playing with a local stray dog for a while and walked by the side of a creek for a while before heading back at the stated time to meet up and leave for our next destination.
After leaving Rila Monastery, again with our headphones in so as not to hear the bickering and whining of the tour guide, we left towards Boyana church, although stopping first at a restaurant which had an affiliation with the tour operating group. While we ate our lunch, we spoke in depth to a couple from Colombia who were also on the tour, a conversation sparked by our mutual disdain for the grumpy guide. The restaurant was clearly sustained only by tourism to and from the monastery as the prices were astronomical compared to that which we experienced in both Sofia and Plovdiv, after being paid by us and the Colombian couple the waiter told us they do not give change and abruptly left. The best part about the resturant we found certainly wasn't the food or the service, but its location overlooking a river. If you end up doing this tour, we recommend you eat a packed lunch and sit and look over the river for a much better experience.RSS Feed
Boyana Church was the last place on our list to visit before heading back to Sofia airport and flying home. The church itself is steeped in history, being built in three stages over 800 years. Photography again wasn't allowed inside the church, even without flash. Caitlin thoroughly enjoyed the church and the tour given, notably by a priest and not the tour guide. Much of the emphasis of the church revolves around Bulgaria during the Ottoman Empire and specifically the Bulgarian involvement in the military unit, The Janisarries, an Ottoman special forces comprised on boys taken from Christian families and made into warriors from a young age. A very interesting faucet of local history, although not a great deal to do with Boyana Church specifically. Interestingly enough, the church is surrounded by imported sequoia trees (Redwoods) which add to the fairy-tale look of the area.
Our time in Bulgaria was very enjoyable and interesting, it satisfied our shared passion for both history and the natural world. Perhaps if we were to visit again, our trip would be revered and we would spend our time in Plovdiv, only making a day trip to Sofia, thanks to there being much more to do there. The trip was incredibly cheap, especially considering we broke from habit and took part in guided tours, which actually was a mixed experience in itself. The Rila mountains were beautiful and well worth the money for what is essentially a taxi service, however the tour to the Monastery, the Church and the random restaurant were unjustifiable. Unless your trip to Bulgaria revolves around seeing the monastery at Rila, we both recommend you give serious thought before going. As much as the strange 'grabbing' by the priest at Alexander Nevsky made us both very angry and uncomfortable, the cathedral is the single most impressive thing to see in Sofia and we would suggest taking your chances anyway and getting some pictures inside as well as enjoying the architectural marvel.