Defrost and Serve Beautiful
We like snow. Skiing is fun, and we would sometimes make anatomically correct snowmen when given the chance. We’d even spent a week snowmobiling in Park City Utah one winter and have seen our share of white Christmas’s over the years. So, of course, we like snow. We had just never lived in a place with snow for longer than a week before. What could possibly go wrong?
Avoiding the Cops
It wasn’t until he swerved and started cursing in Bulgarian that we realized that our taxi driver smelled a little bit like vodka. We had enjoyed a bottle (or two) of wine at dinner that night, so we weren’t as observant as we might normally have been perhaps. But there’s nothing that will bring your awareness sharply back into focus like almost crashing into multiple cop cars. The police station parking lot must have been full because several of the patrol cars were parked in the right lane of the road. If parking “wherever the hell you please” were an Olympic sport, the Bulgarians would win every year. It’s not just the police in Bulgaria who embody these incomprehensible parking skills, it’s everyone.
When we opened the taxi door, the first thing I noticed was that the driver looked like Bon Scott, the original singer for AC/DC. He didn’t seem drunk to us, just friendly. When the driver saw my long hair, his eyes lit up and he immediately wanted to talk about rock and roll. He loudly voiced his favorites in very broken English and seemed very excited about the chance to discuss music with a kindred spirit. The conversation mainly consisted of someone shouting out the name of a rock band followed by everyone else nodding their head in agreement, smiling, and getting excited in whichever language was most comfortable to them. I was a bit concerned about the amount of time he spent facing us to talk as opposed to looking at the road in front of him but no one in Bulgaria seemed shy about using their car horn. So, we figured if his driving became a problem, someone would let him know. The funny thing about parked cars is that they don’t honk much, so those tended to sneak up on him a bit. A few minutes later we thankfully arrived home safely, and our taxi driver reluctantly let us out. I can only assume that he was headed home to finish his bottle of vodka and annoy his neighbors with an impromptu concert of some of the bands we had discussed that night, at full volume. Long live rock and roll.
Sofia isn’t one of those cities that makes a great first impression. Its architecture is left over from an unimaginative communist rule and the winters can be harsh. For two people that grew up in warmer climates our first impression was, “What have we gotten ourselves into?” It was our fault for moving there in January I suppose. We had spent time in snowy areas before while on vacation, so we figured, “No problem. We’ve done this before.” Let me just say that, what in hindsight should have been obvious. Vacationing in the snow and living in snow are two completely different experiences.
When we first arrived at the airport in Sofia, it was dark and cold, with piles of dirty looking snow covering everything. We found a guy with a van outside the airport who claimed to be a taxi driver. I had my doubts, but it was freezing and at that point and we would have taken a ride with Ted Bundy if his van had been warm.
The roads were something out of a disaster movie. The part of the movie just after everything goes boom and a handful of survivors steal a car to try to find other survivors. Everywhere the taxi took us, the streets looked as if Godzilla had walked through there first. We also learned that speed limits and lanes are unimaginable concepts to a Bulgarian driver. Even the tram tracks in between the two sides of the road aren’t considered off limits if a tram isn’t currently occupying that space. At any time, a car can be on the tracks coming from either direction and we were never sure how the drivers worked out their system for establishing “right of way” when you’re technically not supposed to be driving there anyway.
Our “taxi driver” eventually found our new address, since we didn’t know where we lived yet, and he even helped us carry everything upstairs. When he handed me his business card, the carpet cleaning business it advertised confirmed my suspicions. He wasn’t really a taxi driver but on the plus side, he also wasn’t a serial killer. After all, he now knew were we lived.
Our new temporary home was warm, comfortable, well equipped, and spacious. That was a good thing considering that we spent many days inside, looking at the snow and working while we waited for the sun to show itself. We would venture outside on those sunny days and wander around seeing the sights until we inevitably got so cold, we would seek out a warm coffee shop or bar to escape to. The one thing that was always worth braving the cold for was the food. Bulgarian food is great. It’s hearty, very inexpensive, and delicious.
The trams and buses in Sofia look as if they had been there for a while. That’s really just a nice way of saying that the outsides of them looked old and covered in decades worth of dirt. Once you got inside it wasn’t so bad, but they certainly don’t have the same appeal as a San Francisco trolley car. They’re about half the price of a taxi which is basically, half the price of dirt cheap. I usually preferred the taxi, regardless of the dangers, because it was so cheap, and we could be dropped off right in front of where we wanted to go. We travel lightly and there’s no room in the luggage for snow shoes, so waking in snow had its challenges. Considering some of the massive holes that are common on many of the sidewalks in Sofia, it was probably safer that way as well. Those holes are dangerous enough without snow hiding them. In the winter I think the holes function more like some sort of urban bear trap. Except that they’re more likely to catch unsuspecting tourist than a bear.
We lived next to the Sky City Mall in Sofia and it was pretty convenient for us being that it had a grocery store, a pet store, a music store, and a DM. (Part grocery and part everything store) Grocery shopping was always an adventure. The Cyrillic alphabet is used in Bulgaria and unless there was picture on the label, it was often difficult to figure out what was being sold. Of course, some things like bread are obvious, but we didn’t try to get too fancy with our cooking when many spices look alike, and we had no chance of reading the label. I bought the brands that were imported from far enough away to include a brief description in English, but some packs of spices went undiscovered in our ignorance. Normally we would google labels but when your dealing with a whole other alphabet that wasn’t included on my computers keyboard, it tended to make things more difficult.
The funniest thing about the market we used to shop at, was the loop of music and commercials that we heard every time we went shopping. There was a commercial for a couple of tribute bands that played Bon Jovi and AC/DC songs that I can only assume were very popular there. The only words we understood in the whole commercials were the bands names. There were many times when we would struggle with trying to say a phrase in Bulgarian, only to give up and end the sentence with, “Bon Jovi! AC/DC!” as we laughed our asses off. They were the only words we heard that we definitely understood, so through no fault of either band they became a running joke for us. We heard the commercial for their concert repeatedly for 3 months and I really had to wonder if they were ever going to have the concert.
We almost always looked for one lady in particular when we chose a checkout counter. She was always very friendly and had a big smile for us when she saw us. I’m sure we were an oddity to be wondered about for her. If she were able to speak any English, or if we could speak any Bulgarian, I’m sure the first question she would have asked would have been, “What the hell were we doing there?” It didn’t matter that we couldn’t communicate with her. Friendly translates into any language. She’d check out our groceries and point to the total on the registers screen. After we paid her, she’d flash another smile at us and give us the same flier she always gave us. Bon Jovi! AC/DC! This concert was going to be huge!
Sofia has most everything you’d expect from any capital city. It has its everyday life happening everywhere mixed in with the famous landmarks that keep the tourist showing up. Cathedral Saint Alexandar Nevski is probably it’s most recognizable landmark. As impressive as it is on the outside, I would have to say the inside is even more stunning. We unfortunately don’t have any good pictures of the inside because we were stalked by an angry priest once we entered. He seemed adamant about us not taking any pictures inside. It was really kind of comical and became a game for us as we led the priest around. I think he could tell that we were trying to sneak a few pictures and he seemed determined to catch us. We were so content and amused with seeing how long he’d follow us, that pictures became unimportant. I eventually got one, fairly blurry picture for our efforts. Our priestly shadow was very good and guarding his cathedral from being photographed. The only reason I got the one blurry picture was because a couple of tourist entered and tried to take a picture. He was forced to turn his back on us for a moment while he harassed them, so I took the shot.
Vitosha Boulevard connects a lot of what most people come to Sofia for. It’s a pleasant pedestrian street, lined with the usual shops and cafés, that stretched across the center of the city making it easy to keep your bearings and weave your way to various landmarks. We avoided most of the restaurants along the boulevard itself but there are many excellent restaurants a block or two off of Vitosha that are well worth seeking out. “Made in Home” was probably our favorite restaurant because of a sweet potato hummus that was beyond incredible. We’ve been several places where hummus is an everyday staple and the best we’ve ever had is in Sofia. Who would have thought?
Bulgaria is best known for its red wines. They’re very proud of them and we’d recommend to any wine fans out there to try them if you get a chance. There is also a variety of grape used to make Tokaj wines that we found quite enjoyable. Many of the vineyard there have their own offering in this style and we selflessly sampled as many as we could for the benefit of researching them for our readers. (wasn’t that nice of us?) After many bottles sampled, we can confirm, the wine is good. Maybe not the best in Europe but very tasty.
Rakia is also a traditional drink found in Bulgaria and served after every meal. It’s the kind of drink that can be consumed or used to take the paint off of your house. It’s very strong and comes in many varieties. We sampled as many as we could but it’s not the kind of drink that you need very much of, especially after a couple of bottles of wine.
There’s so much good food in Bulgaria that the real challenge is trying not to get fat, or fatter in my case. Made in Home, Moma’s, Vino and Tapas were a few of our favorites but as long as you avoid the touristy areas, you will find great food. The best part of it is that we would order two appetizers, two main courses, two desserts, and a couple of bottles of wine for around $50-$60 US. Most of the bill would be the cost of the wine. It’s hard not to love Bulgaria when they feed you so well.
For the last month we were there, the weather warmed up to a much more pleasant and comfortable temperature. Sofia is one of those places that epitomizes the way Spring is supposed to bloom and it’s a gorgeous transformation of the city when it happens. When you live in Los Angeles for as long as we did, (a city with two seasons, summer and short winter) a thing like Spring is a wonderous thing. It was our last month there that made us fall in love with Sofia.
Over the hills and through the woods
Using the trains in Bulgaria is an experience in itself. Like everything else there, the cost is very low, and we took full advantage to see other parts of Bulgaria. First class on these trains is just barely above the cost of a regular ticket and you get a lot more space for your money. This was great for us since we could take advantage of the extra space and bring our laptops to work offline. We were able to visit Melnik, Belogradchik, and Plovdiv. Melnik is a small village known for its wine, which explains why we were drawn to it. There’s an old monastery there as well and we hiked there and back to enjoy a day in the forest. Belogradchik has one of the most spectacular fortress we’ve ever seen, and we’ve seen a lot of fortresses. Plovdiv is a laid back and artistic. It has a really funky (in a good way) vibe and we’ve often said, if/when we move back to Bulgaria, we’d like to live there next.
The more we saw of Bulgaria, the more we liked it. Sofia has more to offer than we first thought, and the train system allowed us to see some great areas. The people of Bulgaria were incredibly friendly, and I like to think we made friends with a few people there despite our handicap of not being able to communicate very well. It’s seems like it’s always toward the end of our stay that the city becomes such a warm familiar place. For us, that is the sad but exiting indicator that it’s time to move on.