Sorry to be late in posting this week. While I may have gained my wings this week I am fighting a cold so Saturday and Sunday I pretty much laid around doing nada…well, I did watch the gospel hour on Saturday…wait, Mike tells me it was the royal wedding! Beautiful bride and groom and that choir..but oh my didn’t look like Her Majesty appreciated them but I sure did. I also enjoyed the American minister – he used to be bishop in NC according to the Raleigh newspaper…l thought it was great when he quoted MLK but when he started quoting RuPaul “if you can’t love yourself…..” I about fell off of the sofa!
We had a relatively laid back week this week except for last Wednesday. More on it in a moment, but the other days we have tended to go out for one meal – usually lunch and eaten in for the other-though often something we bring back supplemented with shopska salad. One day we went into the main cafe street and had Wok & Walk – Bulgaria’s version of Asian Chipotle….you pick what you want in the bowl: base (rice, noodles, etc.), add the veggies and proteins and then pick a sauce. They wok it up for you. Lots were doing takeaway but we ate out in their shady outdoor space on a beautiful day. It was tasty but seemed even less Asian that American Chinese.
That day we also visited some of the churches we had only seen on the outside during the Free Sophia Tour.The churches are generally smaller than expected based on their exteriors – really thick walls I think and very ornate with huge chandeliers. Lots of icons and frescos. It was interesting to watch the worshipers move from icon to icon. Unfortunately unlike Italy, admission to the churches is free but no photography is allowed. So you will just have to come to Sophia and see for yourself!
We have also revisited the Ladies Market – needed coffee beans for the fantastic built in coffee maker – I am gonna really miss it! In addition to the usual tomatoes we bought delicious cherries and boy were they cheap-37 cents a pound!
Other walks have taken us around our apartment including lunch today at Happy, the bulgarian version of TGIFridays – the menu was huge (think Cheesecake Factory size but the prices were 1/4 as much). It was tasty and fun and like everywhere we have eaten here, cheap. I had a cocktail, Mike a big water, he had soup, salad and sushi and I had hamburger steak, potatoes and salad and the total bill was $20.67.
Our big adventure was last Wednesday, we went on a tour we had arranged from SmartTrans. This is a start up tour company that was recommended by the Free Sofia Tour folks. (I’m sure there is a commission involved!). Anyway, they are trying to build a business doing transfers and tours with clean cabs, english speaking drivers and set prices. Many things you read talk about Sofia cab drivers cheating you…we haven’t had an issue thankfully! We were very pleased with the driver and the tour.
The driver picked us up at 8:30 right as scheduled and we headed south of the city into the mountains to visit Rila Monastery. The drive was beautiful through hills and mountains that reminded me of the Blue Ridge somewhat…but mostly evergreens. While only 38 miles away as a bird flies, it took almost 2 hours to get there on the small mountain roads.
This monastery was initially built in the 10th century and has been in constant use since then. It has served (and does today) as a school but also played a historic role in Bulgaria’s history – a way point on their version of the underground railroad, a hiding place for soldiers when pushing out the ottomans, etc.
It is really beautiful and has a real atmosphere about it. Part of that may have been we were there without a zillion other visitors but I think even with more tourists, it would still have that calmness. You knew you were someplace special.
It is interesting that the entrance facade is protected by a colonnade and every surface is covered with paintings rather than stone sculptures. Really beautiful!
After leaving the monastery we stopped and had a traditional lunch at a little mountain side place. I had Rakia for the first time. This is Bulgarian fruit brandy typically homemade but just like moonshine now available commercially. It is typically served with the first course, the Shopska salad. The Rakia was fine but the salad was better. I followed with grilled mountain trout and mashed potatoes (more like smashed – no cream or butter!). So delicious. Mike (and our driver) had the potato bake typical here. From what we can discover online, it is made by grating (though we had it with chunked potatoes once) potatoes and then baking with cheese, eggs, onions and then whatever meats you like. It is hearty and very tasty. Mike started his meal with Tarator – the yogurt cucumber soup and some tasty tasty garlic bread.
From there, we headed back through the mountains to Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city and the oldest city if Europe (or so they say). There are about 500,000 citizens in the city and we entered through the new part which appeared to be thriving…but we were there for the old part of the city.
Like Rome it was founded on 7 hills, except these hills are MUCH steeper and the paving is much more treacherous. Talk about a death march – I couldn’t decide which was worse, the hills up and down or the uneven, slippery, pavers none of which were the same size!
But the beauty of the town made up for it! From the Roman stadium that was discovered under the newer part of town while excavating for a new building – and then one end uncovered and turned into a public space, to the amphitheater in the old part of the city, to the 19th century homes that are just beautiful, its a lovely town.
Plovdiv is the European Union’s Cultural Center for 2019 and they are already getting ready for that – there were signs around town. The city is already a center of arts and is known throughout the country for the graffiti artists among other more traditional artists. In one case, as punishment for graffiting (is that a word) a building, one of the artists was sentenced to paint the heroes of Bulgaria on the exposed rock of one of the seven hills – of course that hill is now known as Hero Hill.
We made it back to our apartment, eleven hours and 5.4 miles of walking after we started, tired but happy. Needless to say we slept in the next day….and frankly everyday since!
It is hard to believe that we only have a few more days here in Sofia. It is a lovely place but I feel like we have only scratched its surface…..unfortunately, because of the language barrier, I think it will be hard for us to ever do much more than that. I do so wish I could pick up languages faster. Oh well. Glad we came, wouldn’t mind coming back….especially for Shopska Salad and the other cheap eats!
We head to Barcelona next Saturday afternoon where we will spend four nights visiting with Mike’s Brother and his family who arrive on Sunday morning for their vacation. On Wednesday we head to Lisbon.
It is really hard to believe that we are already approaching the halfway mark of our adventure. Time flies when you aren’t working!