i went to grad school with a lot of Bulgarians (rumor had it the head of the department did a lot of recruiting here, for some reason) and for almost a decade now, i’ve wanted to visit just to see what it’s like. during the taxi ride from the airport to the city center i was reminded a lot of Sarajevo in that you could see a heavy historical Ottoman influence but with recent socialist/communist build-up (and wide boulevards), but here there’s a lot of Eastern Orthodox thrown into the mix here as well. the center is very navigable, either by walking for short distances (pretty much all the main sights) or by subway for anything further out.
sidebar: the metro the subway is relatively easy to use. buy a ticket (1 lev, or about 64 US cents, no matter the distance) from the manned ticket window (if you’re not planning to ride too often, single tickets are fine; there’s a discount when you buy 10 for the price of 8). insert the ticket barcode(!) up into the slot on the center front (not top) panel of the turnstile and pull it back out when it’s read. walk through the turnstile on the right. i didn’t see any fare control agents, but might as well keep the ticket until you exit your destination station just in case.
i did the morning Free Sofia Tour (free walking tour — meets at the Palace of Justice which has two big lions in front) but it’s so rushed — as most free walking tours are — you don’t have a chance to actually see anything, so i went back to the hotel afterwards, got my hat (it was 17 degrees Fahrenheit with wind chill), and went back out to revisit everything at a slower pace. alas, the interiors of the churches and cathedrals aren’t as stunning as, say, St. Petersburg (or Istanbul), i think mostly because they haven’t gotten cleaned up and restored, but on the flip side, they definitely LOOK like they have withstood years of history and they’re that much more mystical because of it.
sidebar: the Sofia Hotel Balkan (commonly known as “The Sheraton” by locals, even on signs, though it’s now a Luxury Collection Hotel) — a bit of old school charm in a perfectly central location. nice, but not amazing. the furniture is overdue for replacement. (click through all the way to get the panorama version of the first picture)
here are some instagram shots i took today. sadly it’s been very foggy here, fog that doesn’t lift during the day — and not enough fog to make things super atmospheric, but more than enough to make things look blah.
map for the following couple sections
the museum of socialist art
(no real website available — here’s a link to their facebook page — open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 AM – 6 PM)
this museum is a bit difficult to get to. take the subway (red line towards Mladost/Младост) to G. M. Dimitrov/Г. М. Димитров station (1 on the map). walk northeast to the entrance of the museum (top left of the number 2) — you actually have to walk past a guarded gate (which has a guard that just nods you in — no sign, though you’ll see the Lenin statues in the distance). there is a rotating exhibition inside. currently it’s political cartoons, and a lot of it went over my head since i don’t know much about the recent history of Bulgaria, nor do i read Bulgarian. the video room and souvenir shop were also closed 🙁 the statue park is nothing like Memento Park near Budapest, but still, for a fan of socialist realism and communist statues like myself, it was worth the subway ride, trek, and 6 leva entrance fee.
thank the heavens for foursquare. i discovered a small bakery near my hotel that had the most amazing pumpkin burek (at least, i think it’s a type of burek). cinnamony and sugary and warm and oh-so-delectable!
and again, via foursquare, i found a hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Merak (Гостилница “Мерак”) sorta near the Museum of Socialist Art. located at 3 on the map above, it’s a small place that takes cash only (either get some near the museum or there’s an ATM if you walk west on Samokov to the main street on the left of the map). i am not lying when i say it’s one of the best meals i’ve had in a long time. i can’t say i know what Bulgarian food is supposed to taste like, but you can tell when it’s no-nonsense down-home comfort food. SO GOOD, and friendly staff, too (although only one spoke English, but they do have an English menu). a couple do’s and don’ts:
- DO order the tripe soup (шкембе чорба/shkembe-chorba) which is listed as “pork belly” on the menu
- DON’T put the strong-smelling vinegar and garlic (? i think that’s what he said it was) sauce that comes on the side in it — IMHO it ruins the taste
- DO order the flatbread with butter and garlic (parlenki/пърленки). if you like garlic naan you’ll love this.
- DON’T eat the candy that comes with the check
my live tweets from dinner:
the closest subway stop to this place is number 4 on the map, Joliot-Curie (Жолио Кюри).
now that i’m thinking about it, i think this meal is perhaps the best i’ve ever had in all of Eastern Europe!