Travel to Bulgaria like I did and you will find yourself clueless as to what an amazing and historical place the capital city of Sofia is. Upon arrival, my new friend Tim sat me down in front of the computer and told me “Watch this, it will save us a lot of time and make your stay here more enjoyable. Later we’ll meet the guy that made it. ”
Now, if you want to see a little of what I’m seeing before I start writing about it and showing you my photos, you should watch it too. Very enjoyable and Tim was right, it saved a lot of time by telling me everything I need to know at the outset.
The next morning Tim took me on an amazing walking tour of Sofia. Here is a bit of what we saw:
In 2012 while living in Istanbul, I was fortunate to make many friends and have many adventures. This was the beginning of one of them.
If a Turkish night train sounds dangerous to you, you might want to consider getting some travel insurance before you begin your cheap trip to the Balkans.
Leaving Istanbul is like leaving home. As I say goodbye to my friend Gaye, I can’t help but feel sad to be leaving this incredible city that delights the eyes, mind, body, and soul.
Still, the fact that the bag with all my ‘good’ clothes in it and another bag with the rest of Hanane’s and my things from Turkey both sit in Gaye’s basement means that I’m coming back.
Not to mention, I’ve got a flight to catch to Malaysia at the end of the month. And then another flight from Istanbul to North Africa when I get back. So, like friends and those we love, for Istanbul it is really only a ‘see you later.’ That helps.
Also helpful is the fact that I’m boarding an overnight train from the former Constantinople and into Sofia, Bulgaria. Not only is Bulgaria new and unknown to me, I’ve got a berth on a sleeper car. There’s something just incredibly cool about that. The cost of the ticket…about 30 euros including the sleeper.
The train itself looks old and as if it has come out of a Soviet Republic. I admit I knew nothing about Bulgaria before leaving and it was only when I mentioned on Facebook that I was going into the former USSR, that a friend told me I was wrong. Still, it was Eastern Block and hardcore communist, so I suppose that excuses my American ignorance a bit…that and the fact that I am American. Usually I do better, at least I don’t think Cuba is in Australia or Asia.
An American couple are in the cabin next to the one I share with a Bulgarian mountaineer who is just returning from Nepal. He actually lives in Seattle, he tells me Nepal was the most disgusting place he had ever visited.
The story continues below, but I thought you might want to see all the pictures I took first…the the slideshow is next with the story below it.
Next door, the American man and woman are getting progressively more smashed and I swear I hear one of them crash down from the bunks to the deck. At the border crossing at 3 am they go to the tiny duty free stall and carry back what looks like a bottle of whiskey. When we arrived at the border the Turkish engine detached while we went through a relatively painless customs procedure. The conductor had to wake the Americans by pounding on their door for about five minutes. This was, of course, before they went to the duty free.
The two hour wait at the border was because we had to wait for the Bulgarian engine to come to us. We arrived in Sofia about 3 and a half hours late at right around 1:30 pm. Prior to that we made a stop in Plovdiv where the conductor this time spent ten minutes waking the Americans who staggered out with their clothes hanging on them the wrong way. As I had gone to sleep I heard them having progressivly more slurred conversation. Something like “Just because you fell, doesn’t mean you can’t be proud of getting up there, I mean you did it.”
I kind of loved these two. Getting shitfaced on a night train from Istanbul to Plovdiv. I didn’t want to talk with them because I was afraid it would spoil the nice spell they had charmed me with. when they staggered past to get off the train at Plovdiv the man, who looked a bit like Johnny Depp said “Hi” to me in the drunkest tones and the smell of bourbon wafted up. I took their pictures as they looked around the platform completely confused. I just didn’t want to forget them. Even if they wouldn’t remember their trip.
Arriving in Sofia, it was cold. The train station was freezing and the effect of having cyrillic alphabet all around me was that giddy feeling of culture shock that I both love and hate. I felt completely disoriented. My phone wouldn’t work in Bulgaria, but I was very pleased to find that Bulgaria has the decency to put a wifi hotspot in the train station. Sitting in the cold station, I found my couchsurfing host’s number and then called him with Skype. You have to love technology.
He told me to go to the bus station and get a cab to his house instead of using one from the train station since the guys at the station would rip me off.
The cab was just about three euros and that took me to Tim’s door. In my pocket was the drunk American girl’s hat which I’d spotted in their cabin as i got off the train, picked up, and kept as a souvenir. It was very fluffy and very blue. I imagine it was how the two of them felt when they woke up later.
Travel to the places that don’t make it into most magazines or guidebooks is usually much more interesting and exciting than reading about Bali or Boracay from yet another person who has ‘discovered it’. Certainly I didn’t discover Pernik, but it was a pleasure to get to see it in this way.
We woke up bright and early to go up into the forest with my friend Borislav’s grandfather. He was much more bright eyed than either of us, but one thing I figured out quickly is that Balkan people can drink all day and all night and seem to not suffer from it at all. And they usually seem to start the day with a shot of schnapps.
As for me, I usually suffer if I drink the night before. The sidewalk was icy and it was C-O-L-D but that didn’t stop this 80+ year old man from being the first one down the street, the first one up the hill, and the first one to wherever he was leading us. To be fair though, usually the one doing the leading should go first.
He led us past the nuclear reactors and over the river and then past this amazing testosterone driven machine where the testosterone apparently gave out with a flat tire. Then we crossed the road and went up among the gypsy houses and gypsy dogs.
Now, let me be honest here. These were very kind, simple, and humble people. Their apartment was anything but luxurious but filled their needs. That’s why when we got to the massive house they live in during the summer, I was so surprised. It was gorgeous. Decorated like a boutique hotel, each room different with a different flavor. In the basement, the canned preserves, the still, and the big vats of wine just sitting and waiting to be poured into old coke bottles.
The weather was turning worse, we took a winding path through trees and down icy trails and no one fell but if they had I would have remembered Katya telling me that the funniest thing in the world is the confused look on people’s face when they realized they are no longer standing up. Even if it was me.
Finally, our historic guide decided to go back home where it was warm and asked Borislav to complete the tour by showing me the various monuments and statues in the town of Pernik. In fact, we did see those but given the blue faces we had, we deemed it best to duck into a cafe and grab some coffee.
We did manage to see the old church, the statue of the town protector, the old mining building, and some other statues and monuments that the cold weather made impossible for me to remember.
After that we went back to his grandparents for lunch with his aunt and while there was some rakia, I avoided getting so much of the hospitality of these wonderful people this time that my head would feel like it might explode.