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Entries about sofia

Day thirty-nine - three train journey to Belgrade

Friday 4 October 2019

semi-overcast 17 °C

Belgrade bound

My first train was at 9.30 and as the station was just 15 minutes away, I didn’t need to be out of the apartment too early. The pavement of Kozloudui Street was very smooth compared to other streets near the apartment making it much easier to drag my case along. There are lifts at the station so no problems about navigating stairs. The challenge would be finding the right platform.

There are cafes in the station so I grabbed a coffee - it wasn’t the best but OK. There are several little shops and cafes outside that serve both the bus and train stations. Apparently platform numbers don’t come up until the train arrives so I had to wait to find out the platform. Trains arrive and are available to board a good while before departure time - probably because there's only one train a day. It’s not like the Bristol to Paddington train that runs every 30 minutes.

Fag breaks and border control

I was steered towards the platform and I knew it was the right train from pictures on the man in seat 61 website. It’s only two carriages long and covered in graffiti. Very distinctive. The train left on time but seemed to go at a snail’s pace. Knowing I had two changes ahead, it didn’t fill me with confidence. Each time the train stops it seems that it’s a good excuse for the smokers to get out and have a fag, including the conductor/ticket collector. At the Bulgarian/Serbian border before the first stop of Dimitrovgad, the border control guys came on board but once they’d finished, we sat waiting for ages. I looked at the time thinking that I would never make the connection when I realised that we were moving into a different time zone, going back an hour. What a relief. Plenty of time to crawl along and have loads of ciggies.

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Of course, once you are over the border, the same process happens with Serbian border control. At Dimitrovgrad, we were shepherded onto the next train bound for Niš. There are no signs so you have to put your trust in the guards and rail staff.

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On the journey to Nis the train picked up the pace and as we headed towards the mountains the scenery became more interesting passing through a particularly stunning gorge- Sicevo Gorge. Up until this point we had been travelling across the plains - not my favourite scenery.

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Niš to Belgrade

We arrived at Niš on time and had a 30 minute wait. As advised by the man is Seat 61, there were no refreshments served at the station. A hot drink would have been nice but I had plenty of food and water to keep me going. I got chatting to a fellow traveller. He was from Norway - his heritage was Iraqi Kurd. He told me how he is always seen as a foreigner wherever he travels, even to Iraq. A salutary story.

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The last leg of the journey involved a better class of train that was also speedier. Jiwan, my new companion, bemoaned the fact that he hadn’t realised how long the journey was and wished he’d taken the bus which takes about 5 hours - less than half the time. I hadn’t looked into buses but it was definitely something to consider for any future travel plans. Certainly, a lot of bloggers recommend Flixbus as a good way of getting around.

Finding the apartment

Finally, we arrived at Belgrade Centar station. I have to say, it isn’t the most inspiring station. We managed to find our way out and Jiwan helped me find the apartment that was meant to be close by. I was mindful that he still had to find somewhere to stay so felt guilty that he was going out of his way to help me. Arriving in the dark is never good but I knew it was in one of the soviet blocks rising up behind a big concrete wall - but it wasn’t clear how to get there. Luckily, I spotted steps and Jiwan helped me get the case up before he set off to find his way into town. I hoped he would find somewhere to stay.

I found the block 30 and two really helpful young women helped me get to the right floor using an ancient soviet lift. I was greeted by Sanja the host's, father who showed me how everything worked. It’s a lovely little apartment with some thoughtful touches and great views of the city from the eleventh and a half floor!

Planning ahead

One thing I had to do before the end of the evening was decide on the last leg of my journey home. I originally intended to take the night train from Ljubljana to Munich but accommodation there - probably due to Oktoberfest - was astronomically expensive. Everything seemed to be €200+ per night. Digging around, it seemed to make more sense to go to Trieste instead and then get the train to Venice to do the overnight train to Paris. I booked a hotel in Trieste and all my trains from Trieste onwards including the Eurostar and train to Bristol. Just had to hope everything would run like clockwork.

Posted by Cath_Greig 06:30 Archived in Serbia Tagged trains travel serbia sofia bulgaria Comments (0)

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.

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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...

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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