Sofia Week Three

Sorry for the delay in posting about our last week in Sofia but I was fighting a cold most of that week and since then we have been traveling.  Due to my cold, we stayed pretty close to the apartment most of the week only venturing out for nourishment, so this post will be mostly of food!

By the end of the week, I was feeling up to walking a little further afield so on the Friday before we left on Saturday morning, we went out to the main pedestrian street to see what a Friday night was like.  We had a good dinner and enjoyed ourselves but frankly it wasn’t that much different than a week night.

Below are some different dishes we had throughout the last week.

Watermelon, Mint and Bulgarian feta salad

Fish in a lemon sauce with a yougurty and garlic side

Grilled cheeses with blueberry preserves

Grilled meatballs and ribs with potatoes and coleslaw and the red pepper/tomatoes/onion sauce that comes with just about everything

We had a RyanAir flight to Barcelona on Saturday afternoon so we had a taxi pick us up about noon and after waiting for the checkin station to open we spent an hour or so in the lounge courtesy of the Priority Pass that comes with both our credit cards.  RyanAir’s boarding was a bit of a cluster but that was due to contract employees I believe. Once aboard, it was typical uneventful service.  I still have trouble getting use to flight attendants hawking raffle tickets but…..the flights were cheap!

Some thoughts on Sofia – it is a beautiful city, especially the non communists parts! There are many parks which while not as well maintained as the ones in Valencia are obviously well loved.  The cost of living is certainly appealing – we suspect that will change when the Euro becomes the standard.  While we discussed where we would want to live if we decided to make it our home, I suspect given the language (alphabet mostly) issues as well as the temperature extremes, that it won’t be where we end up.  But if you are looking for an interesting place you haven’t visited and don’t want to spend a lot of money, then we highly recommend heading to Sofia!

Sofia Week 2

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!

Sofia Week One

What an interesting place Sofia is!

Bustling, full of people, some dressed up, most not.  The main pedestrian street runs for blocks and is full of cafes, stores, and people – lots of people, reminds you of Paris or what we think Paris is like.  You hear today’s music on the street and the kids look more or less like others around the world, but behind it all not buried very far there is the communist past.  It comes to the fore when you notice the modern architecture is surrounded by some truly horrendous blocky communist concrete blocks, or the remnants of the old communists “cafeterias”.  Small storefronts with a few tables that serve three or four hot dishes and an equal number of salads – cheap cheap lunch and tasty food…so maybe communism wasn’t so bad after all. After our first week we are intrigued and glad we have come to visit.

My biggest issue is the language.  It is written in cyrillic so it is difficult to figure out what anything means.  For example, in Valencia it was easy to know  that “farmacia” was a pharmacy but when you see “аптекa” would you know whether to buy your aspirin or ask to have your hair trimmed?  And then even if you don’t have to read bulgarian, pronouncing it is very difficult for anyone who grew up speaking english. Even saying thank you is tough “Blagodarya ti” doesn’t just roll off my tongue.

Luckily, many Bulgarians speak enough english for us to get by with nodding…oh wait, thats right, they nod their heads for “no” and shake their heads for “yes” so that too has caused some confusion!…but we get by with pointing.

After settling in last Monday and finding the closest supermarket – not as impressive as in Valencia and Italy on Tuesday we took the “Free Sophia Tour” which was great.  We have done these tours elsewhere, you give a tip at the end.  This one like the others was a good introduction to the city and boy did we walk!

After meeting the guides and group at the Courthouse and being broken into two groups, we visited the Square of Tolerance, this area has a mosque, two churches, and a synagogue.  The Bulgarians are very proud that unlike their brethren in other Nazi annexed countries they protected their jewish population and none were sent to the camps.

We then walked through the central metro station which took over 10 years to build as with each excavation they found another level of the city’s history which had to be excavated and protected.  The pedestrian level of the metro station is built at the Roman level using the ancient pavement.  The ruins of that era’s buildings are left exposed.  Above it but not yet at the current street level is the oldest church in town which you pass while walking down the stairs to the metro.

One stop on the tour was at one of (there are 14 across the city) the public fountains. Sofia is blessed with mineral springs and many believe the water has healing powers and come to take drinking water home. There were lots of people with lots of big bottles getting water from the 30-40 fountains. The water is warm and tasted mineraly-is that a word?

Our tour also took us by the President’s Office, the old communist party headquarters, now the parliament, the “Russian Church” and the tour ended at symbol of Sofia, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.  This church was built in the early 1900s but was built to resemble a byzantine  structure.

After our tour, we took our guide’s suggestion and went to a nearby restaurant for a typical Bulgarian meal.  It was very good. We shared everything as we usually do – below you can see a Shopska Salad – basically a greek salad but the cheese is milder and rather than being a hunk, is shredded, Tarator – a cold yogurt and cucumber soup with walnuts and dill. We both wanted more of both!

For our entrees we had stuffed cabbage made with pickled (not sauerkraut) cabbage and a pork, sausage and cabbage dish baked with a pastry top.  Both were ver good, we especially liked the warm spices used – cumin, cinnamon, etc.  The dishes looked german but tasted middle eastern…which makes sense given our location.

Other activities this week have been visiting two of the city markets – one is is inside and wasn’t that great – though we did buy some prepared dishes there that were tasty.

The other is an outdoor market – Ladies Market – I swear that is it’s historic name so no shaming me.  It was great, beautiful vegetables, clothing, housewares, and even wine that they put in your bottle.  But we learned our lesson, it wasn’t very tasty, so rather than $2 a bottle, I will pay the $4 at the store.

We have found that unlike most everywhere else we have ever lived, it is as cheap and perhaps cheaper to eat out here than to buy food and cook it yourself.  We are still making our breakfast and so far have eaten one meal in each day, but we are enjoying having lunch out while we are exploring.

So far we have had very good gyro type platters at a place around the corner, pork & potatoes and Spanish omelets at a “communist” cafeteria, salads, soups, potatoes, pizza while walking on the street, and asian food at a place on Vitosha Street which is the great pedestrian main street.

Vitosha is the continuation of the main street a block from us – unfortunately, to get to the happening part of the street, is a 15-20 minute walk but then we do need to keep our steps up.  (Don’t want to brag too much but so far this week we have done over 5 miles three times.  Hopefully our May average daily miles will exceed that of April which was 2.6….still much better than it was in January!)

The street was busy on the weekday we did the free tour but when we were there yesterday on a beautiful (at least until the rain started) Saturday, it was packed. From the street, you can see the nearby mountains from which the street takes it name…and even though it is in the mid 70s here, up there some snow remains.

In addition to some tourists, it appears that Sofians enjoy their time here and it appears that Sofia is the place that Bachelor and Bachelorettes come for their stag/hen parties – we saw several male groups dressed in similar t-shirts usually with one of them (the groom we presume) wearing a skirt, or wig or some other costume.  And we saw the group of ladies below in more traditional costumes.  Given the good time they were having at lunch time, I can only imagine what it was like after dark!

Some of you have asked how we are doing versus our budget – I am please to report that in both March and April, we underspent what we set as our budget for each month of 2018.  That wasn’t a surprise in March since almost half of of the time was spent on the ship where we didn’t have many expenditures.  However, in April, we came out ahead by over $1,600 so we are pleased and hopeful that we won’t be looking for a job at Walmart anytime soon.

Hope everyone has a great week – we are planning on visiting the insides of some of the places we saw on the free tour and taking a day trip to Plovdiv – Bulgaria’s second largest city.

Made it.

Sorry for not posting yesterday after we arrived in Sofia but we were busy doing laundry, unpacking and finding sustenance before it got dark.

That’s Mike standing on the balcony of our $37 per night (well below our $50 per night Budget) apartment on the next to top floor. The windows to his left are the master bedroom. The second bedroom (where no friends wanted to join us 😢) is on the backside and overlooks the courtyard and also has a balcony set up for drying clothes. So we have cross ventilation for the first time since we left which is nice as it’s in the mid 70s during the day and in the 50s at night.

Apartment is as advertised and we have a huge TV (50″?) and refrigerator and a built in automatic coffee maker. You push a button and it grinds the beans and then makes the coffee into your cup. I love it! That’s it between the built in microwave and regular oven in the stack in the left of the kitchen picture. The refrigerator is to the left of them at the very edge. It has a two burner stove top which will hopefully be sufficient. The dishwasher is to the right of the sinks and behind the last cabinet to the far right is the washing machine. Unlike our other places, this one appears to be lived in on s regular basis so there are plenty of pots, pans, utensils-didn’t even have to unpack the small cheese grater we bought in Milano-this pace even had an electric pepper mill!

The two bathrooms are nice. One has a fancy jetted tub-haven’t tried it yet (after my experience with the soaking tub at the Park Hyatt in NYC I’m a little afeared) but the shower in the other one is great. Body sprays, rainhead and a handheld. So all my parts and pieces are squeaky clean.

We just got back from the supermarket-Fantastico. (I swear that’s what that sign must say!)

Veggies are going to be an issue as there weren’t many except for potatoes and cabbage. The other fresh things they had were expensive, well at least for here. It’s also going to be a challenge figuring out how to order meats and such from the counter. Looks like there will be lots of pointing and nodding.

Off to make lunch-it’s a holiday here so most things are closed and it’s supposed to rain so we are likely to lay low this afternoon and enjoy our new digs.