The list part 1

It’s a little strange for it to be my final day, I’ll admit I have very mixed feelings about this.  Sofia has been successfully keeping me occupied so far which has been good.  Yesterday I wrote a list of some places taking part in the Sofia design week and spent a lot of time searching out the galleries, also enjoyed drawing the Russian church for a while.  In the evening I went to a couchsurfing meeting and met someone who offered to take me around today, so I’ll be catching them later to see the city with a local.

I have learnt so much being on my travels and feel very grateful for having had the opportunity to do a journey like this.  It’s been so interesting, especially starting in Czech Republic which is very ‘western’ and working my way south where the countries seem to get poorer and in more disrepair and the people have less and less faith in the government.  But it has been heartening to see that a lot of people have been so welcoming everywhere I’ve been, offering me opportunities to see life as they see it and not sugar coating it for tourists.

Some experiences I will never forget –

  • Communist queuing (it took me a couple of times being queue jumped before I cottoned on, at first I thought people were in a group when they stood at the window together and then when one person left and the other just slid right in, I had a ‘hey!’ moment when I realised that standing a polite distance behind does not work here if you want to get served)
  • Meeting specific people (one guy whose ex was threatening police action for stalking; making friends with locals who have been so kind to show me around – students in Olomoucs saved my trip there from being horrifically boring – the couch surfers I’ve befriended – the random Romanians I got talking to in Brasov; some of the people who work at hostels have gone out of their way to make your stay as great as they can make it – for example one guy in Budapest used fabric softener in my laundry, never has soft clothes meant so much as when you’re travelling – one woman running the Sibiu hostel was fantastic when I told her about my awkward experience with an over friendly train conductor; the woman whom I met in Krakow and were able to share the Auschwitz experience together)
  • That being said, Auschwitz.  Horrifyingly fascinating.
  • The somewhat thrill seeking Crazy Guides tour of Krakow.
  • Catching trains in Romania (scrambling over train tracks and complete lack of platforms)
  • Having to learn 6 different languages for ‘do you speak English?’, ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘cheers!’.  Please don’t test me when I come back – I’m afraid I won’t be able to remember them all…
  • The fantastic festivals I’ve bumped into, counting 6 in all.  The one that stood out most was the Sibiu Theatre festival.
  • The hostel in Olomouc.  A swimming pool, seriously?  But at least everything else has been really nice in comparison.  And truth be told, it could have been worse but to me it stood out.
  • Having to communicate with people that don’t speak any English at all.

There is someone waiting for the computer and I’m probably over the time limit so will continue later…

Getting to know Sofia

After a wonderful time in Plovdiv, my friend saw me off at the train station with a big hug and promises to keep in touch.  This is after having laughed at me when I said I was getting the train.  A Bulgarian train, are you kidding?  I’d already heard many stories of how slow the network was, where people would leave Istanbul to go to Sofia, one traveling by train, one by bus and the bus would win, every time.  In fact, any Bulgarian I mentioned that I was getting the train laughed.  Hmmm.  But I’ve already got my trusty InterRail ticket, so it’s a no brainer.

I get to Sofia, track down my hostel and find that there is  a walking tour in a couple hours.  I head over so that I can get my bearings here, hoping that I’ll discover lots of things to do.  Which may be a little tough, according to people that I’ve spoken to about Sofia.  Most reports say it’s just another city.  And that 4 nights here are too long.  So my mission is to find all the interesting points of Sofia to fill up 4 nights.  My InterRail ticket has now run out so this is definitely the winding down of The Adventure.

The walking tour showed interesting points of the city; mosques from the ottoman empire, russian built churches, the cathedral, lots of churches.  There were lots of communist buildings, the one which housed the main seat of ruling used to have a great red star on top.  Which now is tossed (well, as unceremoniously placed as you can with a giant glass star) in the grounds of an old abandoned building.  At the end of the tour I was asked my first impressions of Sofia.  Honestly.  I said that there seemed to be lots of interesting pockets in the city but it’s hard to see it apart from just being a big grey city, mostly thanks to the communism era…  I’d like to know more about it because I’m sure there is lots to it that I don’t know.  My impressions of Bulgaria in general is mostly influenced by the people.  Everyone I’ve met has been so friendly and welcoming but terribly pessimistic about the conditions in Bulgaria.  The tour guide laughed, I asked if that was true, and he agreed.  He said that despite people wanting change, the next generation just falls into the old habits of their parents because they’re the only habits they know.  But there are people working hard to be optimistic, to open up Sofia and Bulgaria to the traveling community to help others understand it and make changes within the country.  So again, here seemed to be a deep core of faith for the future.

Today I went on an organised day trip to Rila Monastery, the biggest in Bulgaria.  It’s set on a site where a monk went and lived in a cave for 7 years.  We went to the cave, saw that there were bits of paper with prayers and wishes tucked into the cracks of the rocks.  In the cave was a little platform which is where he must have stayed and there were religious pictures and burning candles arranged amongst the rocks.  We were able to climb through the cave – legend says that if you climb through you are absolved of all your sins….

We then traveled to the actual monastery building which was quite magnificent.  Similar to Bachkovo in that there was a courtyard with a church but much much bigger.  I know I over use the word awesome, but I thought it was beautiful, and a little Tim Burtonesque with black and white stripes on a lot of the pillars.  Awesome.  Inside, the walls were totally covered with paintings and gold displays, as is usual for the orthodox churches.

Now I’ve done a day trip out, I think I’ll next be doing the meanderings around the city – bonus design week festival will help – and hopefully I’ll find that 4 nights in Sofia isn’t way too long!