OK, here’s the truth: I didn’t write my diary when I got on the plane. I’m writing it now from my bed in Kent, from memory. I was tired and excited about coming home during the flight, and – if we’re being honest – kind of fed up of writing. (Next time I travel I’m going to find a way to make the diary entries more concise/readable/interesting.) Anyway, 5 weeks late: Sofia.
I arrive at Sofia bus station. It’s a bit shit and I don’t fancy hanging around, so head to the tram stop and find a kiosk from which to get tickets (one for me and one for my luggage). The man standing by it doesn’t speak much English, and prints me off three tickets for three leva when I only need two, but I can’t be bothered to correct him. I’m also surprised to be charged one lev per ticket; I’d been informed it was 50 stotinki (half a lev). There doesn’t seem to be any English information around, so I try to find out from him which platform my tram is on. Perhaps realising his language skills aren’t up to the challenge of explaining which platform to go to, he kindly guides me through the subway to take me to the correct platform instead. He’s useful beyond this too, motioning that I should watch my bag in case of pickpockets, and dolefully wafts his hand in front of his nose and pulls a face as if to apologise for the overpowering stench of urine.
Having made it to the platform without keeling over from the shock to my olfactory senses or being mugged, he tells me which tram to get using his fingers and waits with me so he can check I get the right one. Eventually the requisite number arrives and I get on, but to my embarrassment can’t work out how to use the ticket validation machine. A man on the tram helps me. I’m growing very fond of the people of Sofia already, if not of the trams or the view from the tram – both of which are very threadbare. Suspect this may be on a par with Belgrade and Pristina for ugliness.
Reach Hostel Mostel with little difficulty thanks to clear instructions on website. Turns out the main hub of the hostel with the reception, kitchen and common room area is located separately to the private rooms; these are in a building down a separate street about 5 minutes’ walk away and up several flights of stairs. It was just under £20 for one night in a private room, which I’m willing to pay on the last night of my trip to ensure the safety of my belongings/ease of sleep. And once again it’s a nice room with acres of floor space (useful for when I repacked my bag later that night…).
But there’s not much time to waste, as the walking tour begins in just half an hour. I find them by the Palace of Justice, where the law courts are, led by Dino, an infectiously enthusiastic student. He asks where I’ve been so far, so I briefly outline my route; he exclaims that this is similar to the route of an American lady on the tour, who is also travelling alone, and introduces us. It begins to rain, so we relocate to some trees by Cathedral Sveta Nedelya to keep dry and admire the neo-Byzantine architecture nearby.
It turns out that, like Plovdiv, Sofia – or Serdica as it was formerly known – too has Roman history which has recently begun to be excavated. Ruins were discovered when the new underground links were being built, and there’s a little viewing window in the station so commuters can admire their city’s ancient heritage (or something).
We move on to a crossroads, where you can see the relative religious diversity of the city; from this one vantage point you can see a mosque and a synagogue (one of the largest in Europe) by looking right, and a cathedral by looking left. I have to admit by this point that Sofia has much more going for it than I had originally thought, especially the gorgeous mineral baths building [see below]. We try water from the spring. It has a strange taste.
Then it’s on to even more ruins, this time underneath and in the courtyard of government buildings – there seem to be plans to build a network of tunnels around this area for a museum or an underground tour. We move on through the darkness, seeing the lovely Ivan Vazov theatre on our way, and ending at the imperious Alexander Nevsky cathedral. Unfortunately, to save money, there is no lighting on the building, so we can barely see it. It’s a shame because it’s a sodding massive building (upstaged only for grandeur by Belgrade’s Saint Sava cathedral) with stunning gold domes.
Again I’m impressed by the tour and tip handsomely, before walking back to the hostel with the nice American lady. It turns out she’s from California, and is married – but that she goes on a month-long adventure once every three years without him, which is apparently completely fine. I’m inspired by this arrangement. Why let your other half’s lack of wanderlust stop you from exploring the places you want to explore? (Mum, take note.)
I decide not to bother with food, as it’s late and I need to check in online, only to realise having made the trek over to the hostel hub that I’ve left my passport in the room, which is kind of an essential item for this process. So instead of returning to get it, I terrify my mother with an international call home to get the details off a photocopy she has instead. Having assured her that her firstborn and favourite is actually totally fine (just lazy), I get the details off her. Hey presto; check-in complete. Boarding pass printed. I am ready to go home.
There were several places on the tour I’d wanted to take pictures of, but had been foiled by angles and nightfall conspiring against me, so I woke up at 7 the next morning to get my things packed and still have time to retrace my steps and take more photos. My primary targets were the massive cathedral (of course) and the delightfully kitsch Chupa Chups mural on a wall near the St Sofia statue. It was a really nice way to wind down the end of my trip; few people were around so early in the morning and there was a refreshing autumnal breeze in the air along with the sound of a busker playing an energetic rendition of My Heart Will Go On on his (bleh) accordion.
Pictures taken, it’s time to get a taxi to airport. There is bad traffic. To pass the time, the driver – who speaks little English but is very friendly – asks where I am from, which football team I support, what I think of Sofia, if it’s OK for him to smoke in the car. (I say yes even though I’d really rather he didn’t.) I tell him I like Sofia, and consider that I actually kind of do, although I’m not sure I’d find much to do if I had to stay longer. Bulgarian people are probably my favourite on the whole trip; always happy to help tourists, even if it means taking up their time and effort.
We arrive two hours before my flight leaves. Good thing I didn’t arrive sooner as I can’t check in until an hour and a half beforehand, and Sofia Airport is, I’ll be honest, a bit of a dump. Duty free consists of about 3 shops – one large one full of booze and chocolate, one newsagents’, and one Bulgarian souvenir shop full of Bulgarian rose oil cosmetics and flag-festooned statues. With my last few leva, I buy chocolate for dad and Bulgarian rose oil lip balm for mum and nothing for my brother, seeing as I’ve already bought him flags from Bosnia and Kosovo. Finding to my delight that the large shop also takes Euros, I invest in a tax-free bottle of Baileys.
But there’s one last problem to come, on the bus from the terminal to the plane. As we are all crammed onto it in a grown-up’s game of standing Sardines, I feel a hand brush my Kardashian-esque (if slightly less toned and photoshopped) derriere. Assuming it’s by accident, I ignore it. Next thing I know, a small fist has clamped itself on one cheek. Turning round, horrified, it transpires that the perpetrator of this outrageous grope is a tiny infant in a pram, grinning at his unwelcome advances.
I try to move away, but there’s no room. This bus is full. Again he pinches my bum. By now I’m pretty annoyed, so I do what I can in my limited space and shift myself around so my rear is no longer within his reach. There’s nothing grabbable near him now, surely? …aaaand I’ve spoken too soon, because first he prods my pudenda in a way that even Dapper Laughs would baulk at, and before I’ve had a chance to process that he’s starting to lift up my dress!! All in the space of being on a bus for five minutes. I glare at the parents who, thankfully, intervene, and move the pram so I can no longer be asssaulted by this evil munchkin.
Traumatised, I pay £4 for a 330ml can of cider, my first PROPER cider in 5 weeks. The flight otherwise passes without incident. I’m home! And that’s it. That’s my 5 week long journey into the unknown. And what a journey it was… All that remains to be asked is – where next?
Signing off for the final time of this series,
A restless, travel broody once more Jen