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Entries about friends

Day thirty-eight - Getting to know Sofia...a little bit

Thursday 3 October 2019

semi-overcast 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.


Windy lunch

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.


The Thracians

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.

Posted by Cath_Greig 13:21 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged churches friends walks sofia bulgaria Comments (0)

Day thirty-seven - Overnight to Sofia

Wednesday 2 October 2019

overcast 18 °C

Border crossing

The train crosses the Turkey/Bulgaria border so we had to go through passport control in the middle of the night. On the previous overnight train the officers came on board but at the Turkey/Bulgaria border, you have to get off and queue. Apparently if you do it from Sofia to Istanbul you also have to take your luggage off the train to be scanned. Luckily we didn’t have to do that. As the train wasn’t full passport control didn’t take too long and as I was near the front of the queue I got it over and done with so that I could get back onto the train. I think the smokers appreciated the stop.


A little bit further down the line the Bulgarian border guards came on the train to check passports so at least we didn’t have to get off again. The rest of the journey seemed to go smoothly although I was aware that we stopped for quite long periods - not sure why. The train was due to arrive at 8.37 but rolled in an hour later. I felt bad as a friend was meeting me at the station and I had no way of getting in touch with him as my O2 international sim failed to work. It's also hard to know how long you’ll be when you have no idea where you are and with no announcements on the train.


Sofia and friends

When you get off someone will come up and try to pry your luggage from you. Basically, they pretend they work for the railway but will then demand payment. Luckily, my friend Tom arrived and we exited the station. It’s quite a monolith with a huge lobby area. We walked to Tom and Sarra’s apartment for a coffee. I know Tom from when he was a journalist in Bristol but has been living and writing in Bulgaria for two years now and hopes to continue for the foreseeable future.

We had lunch at a nearby cafe and then I went to find my apartment which was close by. I booked Visito Apartments because of the funky colour scheme although the one that I actually got was muted blue. Maybe it was for the best as probably more restful. The first thing I did was put a wash on. I hadn’t been able to wash clothes since Yerevan so I had a full load and was able to hang it out on the balcony. Very satisfying.


A far cry from Soviet times

The last time I was in Bulgaria was 1978 when it was communist. I remember how the shops didn’t seem to have anything in them and food shops had big queues. Well, it’s very different today. There are plenty of cafes with interesting menus and a variety of shops, just like any other major city.

Tom and Sarra came round to collect me in the evening and we took the metro into the city to eat at a vegetarian restaurant close to Vitosha Boulevard that they wanted to try. Because Tom and Sarra are very involved in the cultural sector, the community they mix with are mostly Bulgarian with some British people. Although English is spoken widely, particularly amongst the younger generation, they have also been learning the language.


It’s distinctly colder after Istanbul but when the sun is out, still quite mild. There is a cafe culture here in Sofia but people have to wear more layers. Climate is quite temperate - around 22c in summer and below freezing with snow in winter. It definitely felt Autumnal. After a drink we made our way back on foot and I was kindly escorted back to my apartment. I was amazed that I was still awake after midnight considering the broken sleep on the overnight train. Looked forward to crawling into my very large bed!

Posted by Cath_Greig 10:48 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged friends cafe sofia bulgaria Comments (0)

Day twenty-four - visiting friends

Thursday 20 September 2019

sunny 30 °C

Planning my route

I’d been invited to lunch by a friend who lives north of Yerevan’s Victory Park. I was going to get a taxi but looking at the map, her apartment looked as if it was within walking distance if taken in stages. It was going to be another hot day so thought I’d take my time. First stop was the Santafe cafe near the Cascade Complex for a coffee and violet lemonade. Although I always carry water it‘s good to keep the fluids up.


The price of coffee

On the subject of coffee - I have found the prices range widely from 350 to 1,200 drams. The cheapest so far has been at Marilda’s, a locals cafe, with the Marriott being the most expensive. The cafes near the tourist attractions are generally around 800-900 dram.

The Cascades Monument

I chickened out of walking up the Cascades and took the escalators so that I only had to walk a short distance to the top. It was already 26C and I still had quite a lot of walking to do. There is a walkway at the top of the completed cascades that leads to the Charles Aznavour museum,. And from there, you can walk up the road to another viewing platform and monument. Between the Cascades and this viewpoint, unfinished building works can be seen which, I assume, have halted due to lack of funds.


There is a much better view of the city from the platform - I’m not sure why I’ve never been up to it before. Next to the monument there’s a building which has no signage but Armenian writing on it. Apparently it’s a memorial to those who died during the Stalin years. Close by was a group of strange statues/artwork - not sure how to describe them. They look as if they might be scenes from children’s stories but they are quite random and verging on the bizarre.


Victory Park

I’d been worried about crossing the road to get to Victory Park but there was an underground pedestrian way right by the gates. Last time I came here was 9 years ago when we went on the Ferris Wheel and rowed round the lake. It’s a sizeable amusement park - lots of children’s rides - too numerous to mention. There are also a lot of minion themed attractions like the bouncy castle and inflatable slides so they must be big here, too.


Close by the Ferris wheel is the Mother Armenia monument. It’s a pretty impressive statue with a military museum at the bottom and tanks and other military stuff outside - none of which has any interest for me. There are also great views over the city from this vantage point but it was far too hazy to see Ararat.


To get my bearings, I walked down to the lake as I hoped there would be an exit onto Azatutyan street as I needed to walk up there to meet my friend Hasmik. It was time to rehydrate so stopped at the Venice cafe near the lake to rest in the shade and enjoyed a refreshing mint and thyme tea. I gave myself 20 minutes to walk up the hill. By this time it was over 30C so quite a slog. I’d under-estimated the time needed to get to the meeting place. it was hot and the road on a slight incline. I had to quicken the pace but as I neared our meeting point, I felt a tap on my shoulder a& there was Hasmik.


Time with friends

I spent a fun afternoon with Hasmik’s family. Her sister, who had organised our last two visits for us, was there with her three children - all of whom are under four. They are quite a handful, bursting with energy. Hasmik had made some great food. She is experimenting with different dishes and her sweet/sour plums with cheese were delicious. Boiled eggs stuffed with walnuts, eggplant salad as well as red pepper and parsley salad together with bread. Needless to say, there was also cake - Armenians like desserts. Fruit, too. We also had a couple of glasses of Armenian muscat wine which made me sleepy as I don’t normally drink in the day.


The entrance to the apartment is quite shabby, like most Armenian blocks. However, inside it was very spacious and light. Hasmik herself had redesigned the layout and decor. She’s done a good job.

Wending my way back home

As evening came Hasmik had to go to work so she gave me a lift to the top of the Cascades. I don’t know how anyone can drive in the city - it’s like a race track with a dog eat dog mentality. Driving around cities like London feels like a walk in the park in comparison. It was nice strolling back as the air cooled. Although it was a silhouette, Ararat looked particularly close in the fading light. I walked back via Moskovyan then cut down Aram Street, through the park. Lots of families out and about, watching the water fountains and enjoying the cooler air.

Although I wasn’t particularly hungry, I ate a few leftovers, had a beer and carried on reading my historical novel, by C J Samson. I can’t help thinking that UK remainers could take a leaf out of the Kett uprising in Norwich and organise something similar. I’m trying not to get too depressed about what is happening in the UK at the moment, otherwise I just won’t be able to sleep.

Posted by Cath_Greig 07:52 Archived in Armenia Tagged food friends coffee cascades yerevan Comments (0)

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