Sofia, Bulgaria

After about 12 hours on the rumbling, shaking and creaky train, I finally made it to Sophia. The train often felt like it has temporarily swapped steel wheels for some sort of off-road wheels to traverse especially problematic sections of terrain. Of course it hadn’t, but the fact that it felt like it had was a pretty clear indication that the track was regularly not straight or level. For a train, it wasn’t especially speedy, which explains the preponderance of bus service – often requiring little more than half the time scheduled by trains! Nonetheless, you could see that the EU was pumping money into new infrastructure projects, and that highways and railways were set for substantial upgrades in the years ahead.

The passport control at both the Romanian and Bulgarian borders (inexplicably almost 45 minutes apart) added to my stamp collection, so that is welcome. The funny thing about crossing into Bulgaria was the cyrillic writing. I have only ever seen it in notes left by an erstwhile flame, or in mentions of the “commies” my father warned me about as a child (only half jokingly, I am sure). Although communism doesn’t exactly strike fear into my heart, cyrillic writing still evokes immediate suspicion that the KGB is lurking just around the corner, plotting my kidnapping and waterboarding in a Siberian prison.

Sophia had some nice sights – especially the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral – and still maintained hints of the Habsburgs; however, crumbling Soviet architecture, tributes to communism and terrible graffiti were all far more prominent. As was hypersexualized advertising. On display all over the city were giant billboards features boobs and hairless bodies advertising things not normally associated with such overt sexuality. Things like, oh, house paint. Or mobile phone plans. I suppose it should not come as a huge shock given the popularity of chalga music. Although I like the music – it usually makes for good dancing – it features completely nonsensical lyrics, that are often quite lewd.

Although I walked more than 15 km around Sofia, the most enjoyable sights were further afield in a town called Rila, home to the lovely Rila Monastery. The Monastery itself had some nice frescoes, but wasn’t especially impressive compared to more regal houses of God. BUT, it’s setting, nestled in a lush verdant valley beneath snowcapped peaks was spectacular. I wish I had more time to spend there because high above the Monestary, where the snow still hides the mountain tops, there are apparently a series of lakes that are gorgeous. I would have liked to hike up there, but alas, I had other plans.

So, after a couple of days at the excellent Mostel Hostel in Sofia, and a decent vegetarian meal at Dream House, I bid farewell to the hostel employees who had taken a liking to calling me katerichka (Катеричка – Bulgarian for squirrel) and left for the sunny beaches of Varna. I also left behind the pervy Japanese guys who loved the ambition of so many Bulgarian women to look like chalga stars, and often captured on camera a butt cheek peaking out from under an impossibly short skirt.