Thursday 3 October 2019
03.10.2019 - 03.10.2019 18 °C
Checking out the trains
Plans for the day included getting my ticket for the next leg of the journey to Belgrade. I knew it was going to be a beast of a trek with two changes and a lot of border control stops. Sofia station has an international booking desk - the woman serving me spoke good English and was very helpful. It cost 41 Bulgarian lev which had to be paid in cash but there is an ATM in the station. When I looked at the departure boards, I realised that I’d need help the next day as it was all in Bulgarian.
The Free Sofia Walking tour
Now that I’d been on the metro with Tom and Sarra I felt confident about using it and got a day pass which can also be used on buses. I intended to go on the 11am free walking tour organised by a non-profit organisation https://freesofiatour.com with young volunteers as guides. I had to get some breakfast so headed to Vitosha Boulevard and had baklava and coffee - not the healthiest meal but satisfying. I dread weighing myself when I get home.
The walk is Interesting and gives an overview of the main sites and the history of Sofia. Like so many other places, it seems that Bulgaria has been invaded many times by the dominant empires - Byzantine and Ottoman as well as Russia. They were on the German side in WW2 although it sounds as if they were pretty reluctant to join the war. A lot of Roman remains can be seen around the city. Buildings are generally large scale with wide streets - a sharp contrast to Istanbul. Some of this is due to the City being rebuilt when Sofia was chosen to be the capital of the new state of Bulgaria. Many of the buildings were influenced by Austrian architecture and styles from Central Europe.
The Statue of Saint Sofia, erected in 2000 in place of Lenin, has proved to be very controversial. She is considered to be too erotic due to her voluptuousness and pagan because she's depicted holding a laurel crown and owl. There are many statues in and around the City, too numerous to mention here. Close to the Alexander Nevsky cathedral is the statue of Tsar Samuil [Samuel]. He looks mighty pissed off but its probably due to having to constantly fight invaders and the cruel treatment of his soldiers by the Byzantine warriors. Or so the story goes...
Many of the buildings are reminiscent of the other cities that I've visited that have been either part of the Soviet bloc or communist. Large and imposing, but definitely not on a human scale. The symbol of Bulgaria is the lion which can be seen on many of the official buildings around the city. Two members of the National Guard were standing in front of the administrative building of the President. Like the guards outside Buckingham Place, these soldiers have to stand still until the hourly changing of the guard. They are purely ceremonial and most noticeable about their appearance is the Eagle Feather that stands straight up on their cap.
There are mineral springs in Sofia and the Central Mineral Baths, were used as the city's public baths until 1986. There have been bath houses since Roman times and also a former Turkish bath close by. The building is now a museum. I really think they are missing a trick here - a mineral water spa would be a great attraction. Apparently there have been campaigners trying to get the baths reinstated. There are water fountains near to the museum. People come from all over the city to fill their water bottles to take home. It has the same sulphury smell and taste as the waters in Jermuk and places like Bath and Buxton in the UK.
I’d arranged to meet my friends for lunch and we ate at a pleasant cafe close to the end of the walk. We optimistically sat outside which was fine until the wind picked up and leaves swirled around falling into our drinks. Definitely Autumn weather. There’s a lot of choice for vegetarians in Sofia - I had some zucchini rissoles with salad which were good and filling.
When we said our goodbyes, I did a bit more exploring. The Archaelogical museum had been recommended so I thought I'd have a look around. It's in a building that used to be a mosque - an unusual space - large and open rather than lots of small galleries. It houses a large collection of Thracian artefacts. The Thracian tribes had no written language so its history has been pieced together from what has been left behind. Historians have gathered that they were known for waging war, making jewellery and producing wine. Famous Thracians included Spartacus and Orpheus, one of the Argonauts.
Before returning on the metro, I wandered over to see the National Palace of Culture, a building that screamed - Soviet style. Apparently its used as a conference and events centre but is so huge, much of it is not used at all.
Getting ready to move on
To prepare for the long journey I needed to buy some provisions as there would be no food on the train or at the stations where I had to change. I bought a variety of bits at various shops. Everything is pretty cheap - for me at least - not for the locals so much.
When I got back the heavens opened and the rain really set in. I wasn’t keen on going out again even though there was a vegan cafe a street away. The road outside was full of potholes and looked pretty treacherous. In fact Sarra has slipped on the street the previous evening so I didn't want to chance it. Instead i settled in for the evening, tucking into some of the food I’d bought for the train journey. The following day was going to be a long one. Flicked through the tv channels. Nothing in English. But I still had some Netflix downloads so settled down to watch the last episode of Dark instead.