Taking it easy in Bulgaria
After a whirlwind tour of Japan and Dubai, I was ready to slow down a little. Those places were exciting and all. But after the red-eye flights, the long walks in desert heat, the tedious layovers in China, and the flight where I was squished up next to a large Turkish man with extra-terrestrially bad BO – I was completely drained.
Sofia, Bulgaria was the perfect place to recharge. I had a project to work on there, so I didn't have to be a tourist. It wasn't a matter of storming through a list of must-see destinations, just experiencing a taste of life in another country. (a country that a year ago, I wouldn't have been able find on a map)
When you first step foot outside the Sofia airport, the first thing you'll notice is a humungous grandpa of a mountain that towers beside the city. That's Vitosha.
One great thing about Vitosha, is that it provides a beautiful backdrop for the other thing you'll notice about Sofia – the scores and scores of dingy Soviet-style concrete high rises (blocs).
These behemoths are a relic of Bulgaria's past. Built back in the days of Communism, they weren't really given much love, and ended up looking like abandoned shanty condos. They might be ugly, but they're tough. So even when communism ended, a place to live is a place to live. So they're still here.
It's what's on the inside that counts though
The blocs are just one aspect of Sofia's gritty exterior. The buses are mostly old clunkers that feel like they should break down at any moment. Most of the sidewalks look like The Incredible Hulk spent some time stomping all over them. There are metal pipes everywhere – some for beating rugs, some for soccer goals, some for water, and some for things I couldn't really figure out – and they all have a little bit of rust on them.
But those things are just superficialities. Once you scrape past the surface, Sofia is an incredible place. Step inside many of those cold concrete apartment buildings and you'll find yourself in a warm, friendly home. The same goes for restaurants and shops. Sofia is a city full of cozy "hole in the wall" places.
One year, two Easters
I've sort of smeared Bulgarian architecture in the mud so far. That's unfair. Because while it's not the norm, there are some beautiful buildings in Sofia. One being the epic St. Alexander Nevski Church.
The main religion of Bulgaria is Greek Orthodox, and I don't know why, but they celebrate Easter later day than Protestant Churches. That day that happened to be two days after my arrival, so got a double dose of Easter this year.
It was a midnight service. Intricately decorated church leaders slowly walked with candles through the church and into the courtyard outside. They stepped out into the crowd and shared their candle fire with a few people, who shared their candle fire with a few, and so on until the hundreds of attendees all had their candles lit. Then, everybody walked around this massive church three times.
Another great thing about Sofia is how walkable it is. There's a massive cobblestone street right in the center of town, and get this, it's permanently closed off to traffic. I wish the US had more of these, because they are awesome. (Spolier alert: this is more of a Europe thing than just a Bulgaria thing, but I saw it here first, so I'm giving Bulgaria all the props)
The street is called Vitosha, and it's a great place for a mid-afternoon stroll. People are out relaxing and chit-chatting. Many of them reclining at the sprawls of small tables that pour out of the restaurants into the street. Musicians are performing. The massive Vitosha mountain looms in the background.
While walking through Sofia, you'll notice that its speckled with all sorts of outdoor markets. They sell everything from honey, to books, to fresh fruits and veggies. In America, we call these farmer's markets, and they're mostly a once-a-week novelty. But in Bulgaria, they're just markets, and they're where you get your food.
Here's a little street market tip. Pick up some cucumbers and tomatoes for a buck or two. Chop them up. Add oil, vinegar, and a little bit of cheese. Bam. You've got yourself a traditional Bulgarian chopska salad – cheap, delicious, local, fresh, and healthy. Hell yeah.
Bulgaria tastes like yogurt
I feel like I can't really talk about Bulgaria without talking about yogurt. Bulgarian's love yogurt. I haven't checked the facts on this, but apparently it was invented in Bulgaria. It's everywhere there. You can't escape it.
Bulgarian's don't drink milk, they drink yogurt mixed with water (called aryan). The cheese tastes like yogurt, the ice cream tastes like yogurt. Much of the food there seems to be smothered in some yogurt based sauce. Even the smallest of markets will have an entire refrigerator dedicated to plain, sugarless yogurt. There are a variety of different types but as far as I can tell, they all taste the same.
At first, this onslaught of yogurt haunts your dreams. But after a while, you start to love it. Before you know it you're eating a bowl of plain, salty Bulgarian yogurt while drinking a glass of aryan for breakfast.
The word puzzle known as Cyrillic
Bulgaria was the third country in a row I visited that doesn't use the Latin lettering system. So I was demoralized at yet again being basically illiterate.
But it's not as hard as it looks. Sit down for an hour or two and learn the Cyrillic A?B's, and then every sign becomes a mini word puzzle. Plus you feel like a little bit of a badass when you can read words in Cyrillic.
Fun Fact: Cyrillic lettering system was invented in Bulgaria, not Russia. Bulgarians are pretty proud of the two brothers that invented it. They even have a national holiday for them.
My favorite part about Bulgaria
I have to say, my favorite part about Bulgaria wasn't Vitosha. It wasn't the markets, or the walking streets, or the yogurt either.
It's the people!
Bulgarians were so friendly, hospitable, and fun to be around. It was great getting meet and hang out with you guys.
If you want to go to a major tourist destination, go to Paris, London, or Barcelona. But meanwhile, there will be people in Bulgaria, relaxing in a park that's a fourth as crowded, drinking beer and eating fresh fruit they got for a fourth of the price.
Until next time,