In Sofia, Bulgaria for the second time in 2017, I was interested in walking around to check out what seemed different in October compared to my first trip to Sofia, Bulgaria in late February. The newness of Bulgaria kind of freaked me out that first trip, when I wandered miles and miles walking around the city, from poorer neighborhoods in Banshora around the railway station to more upscale expat homes around Lozenets, the area of the U.S. Embassy. Stray dogs and potholes on sidewalks and streets had me moving warily across the city.
On this trip Sofia seemed like the safest, most relaxed place I had walked around since Monaco, especially after spending an hour the previous day wandering around Monastiraki Flea Market and streets in Athens.
Sofia’s weather in mid-October was clear and low 70s at noon when I walked out of the Luxury Collection Sofia Balkan Hotel to check the daily pulse of the city. Disregard Bulgarian’s wearing coats as a gauge of the weather. I was fine in a t-shirt.
Sofia’s Banya Bashi Mosque seen to the right from the front of Sofia Balkan Hotel. This is the city’s main mosque built in 1576. Bulgaria’s history is intricately linked to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the country from 1382 until Bulgarian liberation in 1878, following the Russo-Turk War.
Sofia became the capital of Bulgaria in 1879.
Sveta Nedelya, an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral seen to the left from Sofia Balkan Hotel. Bulgaria is one of the earliest Christian nations with Christianity adopted in 865 as state religion.
Eastern Orthodox is the dominant religion in Bulgaria with around 75 to 80% of Bulgaria’s 7.13 million population self-identifying, however, the country’s constitution allows freedom of religion. Muslims are the second largest religious group in Bulgaria at 13% or so.
Archaeological sites abound in Bulgaria
Bulgaria ranks behind only Greece and Italy for European countries with significant archaeological sites.
Bulgaria borders Greece and Turkey to the south. In ancient times the Serdi inhabited these lands known as Thrace to the Greeks and Romans. Thracia was annexed as an official Roman province in AD 46.
The construction of the city Metro lines during the past decade unearthed many artifacts from the Roman city of Serdica. The zenith of Serdica was during the 4th century under Emperor Constantine the Great (306-337).
Sofia’s museums hold ancient treasures of antiquity. Directly in front of Starwood’s Sofia Balkan Hotel is an archaeological dig happening throughout the last six months of 2017.
A poster from the temporary wall around the dig shows clay lamps from 3rd to 8th centuries.
Bulgaria is a cheap country for tourists
Bulgaria is one of the least expensive countries in Europe for buying stuff. UK travel studies I have seen in 2017 frequently list Bulgaria as the lowest priced holiday destination.
Even with the USD exchange rate ($1.00 = 1.65 BGN in Oct 2017) dropping about 11% since my February 2017 trip ($1.00 = 1.85 BGN in Feb 2017), the prevalent price range I paid for most beer pints was 2.00-3.00 BGN ($1.20-$1.80 USD) and $4 to $5 for most simple cafe meals like Turkish doner and hamburgers with fries.
Drinking and dining on Vitosha, the main pedestrian shopping mall in Sofia, is more expensive than average. I paid $3.31 for Czech Bernard beer in one pub and $6 for a hamburger with fries at Chef Home burgers.
In Plovdiv, Bulgaria my lunch in a top 30 rated fine dining restaurant cost $11 for 2 pints of beer and fresh baked chicken with salad.
ATM cash. Many places do not accept credit cards
I wanted to find an area I had shopped in stores last February. A place I recall with good restaurants and pubs and craft shops. Kelley was impressed with all the stuff I brought back in February having spent less than $50 on a suitcase full of gifts including new hand-crafted jewelry and high quality stuffed animals from a second hand shop. Many of the tourist shops and places I made purchases were cash only. I never found that area on this trip after getting distracted by other streets.
Please Bank, can I have some more?
I took out 100 BGN from a bank ATM in Sofia. That is about $60. I figured that would be sufficient cash for 3 days expenses and some shopping in Bulgaria.
For relative comparison to your local ATM bank machine, the first screen showed withdrawal choices only for 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50 lev ($6 –$30 USD). I had to touch ‘Other amounts’ button to reach the second screen for a cash withdrawal over 50 BGN.
Bookseller stalls in front of Sofia City Library
The sidewalk in front of Sofia City Library is lined with bookseller stalls.
My photo of one table covered in maps with some English language travel guides had me thinking I should have made some purchases at incredible bargain prices.
The Cyrillic alphabet was developed in Bulgaria during the 9th century. Today it is used in 12 countries by over 250 million people.
Living on the Central Coast of California in Monterey, where Monterey pine and live oak trees dominate, seeing deciduous trees in leaf fall colors is a welcome sight for me.
St. Sedmochislenitsi – religion, play and beer
One of the aspects of Bulgaria, similar to what I found in Prague and even Monaco, are public squares and parks, where open space, playgrounds, and outdoor cafe-pubs all coexist. The idea of serving alcohol to parents as their children play in the public space seems so relaxed compared to puritanical American norms.
St. Sedmochislenitsi is an Eastern Orthodox church created around 1900 from an early 16th century mosque commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent, in honor of the Ottoman victory at the Battle of Mohacs 1526, which toppled the Kingdom of Hungary in one of the most important battles of Central European history.
One of my observations after sitting in public spaces watching children and teenagers in Prague, Monaco, Nice and Sofia is children are similar everywhere, regardless of language and nationality.
Siblings wrestling over who gets to carry their little dog. Big sister won the match.
Beautifully restored buildings on one street are juxtaposed against deteriorating former beauties on the next block in Sofia.
Cats seemed to be my trip theme
What I did not know yet in the few hours before heading to Plovdiv by train is cats were going to be a recurring theme for the next week of travel through Bulgaria and Prague.
Cats have been around our household most of my adult life due to my partner’s cat affections, but it was only about 11 years ago when I started writing Loyalty Traveler and spent so many hours alone at home observing our cats that I truly discovered their individual character and allure.
In Plovdiv, photographing street cats became my obsession over the next few days.
National Palace of Culture
The south end of Vitosha Boulevard leads to a park and the National Palace of Culture.
One of the amusing sights in the park were children driving around in little toy cars available for rent at 2 BGN for 10 minutes.
Vitosha Boulevard is the main pedestrian shopping street in central Sofia, lined with retail shops, restaurants, cafes and pubs.
Vitosha is also the name of the mountain to the south of Sofia seen in the distance from Vitosha Boulevard.
The north end of Vitosha Boulevard is at Svetla Nedleya Church and Sofia Balkan Hotel at Serdika Metro station.
Lunch menu at a Vitosha cafe shows soup from 3.90-5.90 LV ($2.34-$3.55) and main meals from 7.90-12.90 LV ($4.75-$7.76 USD).
Note: Bulgarians use LV or lev for prices. I tend to use BGN in my articles, the 3-letter international currency code for Bulgarian leva.
Vitosha Street pub is where I paid 5.50 BGN for a pint of Czech Bernard beer, my most expensive beer in a Bulgarian pub.