Sofia, Bulgaria

I left Montenegro on August 12 and flew to Sofia via Belgrade. At the Sofia Airport I grabbed a taxi with a friendly driver who deposited me at my Airbnb in the historic center. My hosts had provided the entry codes and I walked up five flights of stairs to a huge apartment that was well-provisioned. Many of the nicer Airbnbs in the former Soviet Bloc are fully refurbished inside pre-WW2 buildings.

The next morning I enjoyed the famous Bulgarian yogurt with some fresh berries that I’d purchased the night before. I had hoped to rent a bike in town, but when I got there I discovered that they weren’t renting bikes that day, but I could join a guided hike up to Mount Vitosha later that morning, so I chose that option.

We took a bus up to the trailhead and began our climb. The mountain path was deeply wooded and we came to a large waterfall near the summit. There was a group of Austrian students from Salzburg. I told them that I’d spent five weeks there the past April and we shared notes. There was also a French couple who were nice to speak with. A few of our group jumped in the pool at the bottom of the waterfall. The views of the city were great.

After the descent, I shared a taxi with some of the Austrians and grabbed a quick lunch before joining the afternoon walking tour.

Our tour guide was outstanding. We walked through a metro station that was excavated amid an ancient Roman city. It was striking to be walking through Roman ruins underneath a large city. Bulgaria has a number of Roman ruins since it was the imperial province of Thrace at the time.

We also visited medieval Orthodox chapels, the former royal palace (King Boris, who was allied with Germany in WW2, was the last monarch. He was German), the neoclassical Ivan Vazov theater and the immense Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Bulgaria has always had a special relationship with Russia, given the latter’s military aid in ejecting the Turks after hundreds of years of subjugation. Under the Communist reign of Todor Zhivkov, Turks were forced to adopt Bulgarian surnames and were encouraged to emigrate. The tour ended at the large central park fronting the Royal Palace.

Walking back to my apartment, I checked my phone to discover that I’d walked 13 miles. It was time for dinner and I looked for a traditional Bulgarian restaurant within walking distance.

The dinner was excellent, accompanied with a surprisingly good Bulgarian red. The service was first-rate.

The next morning I reserved a driver from a Dutch app to pick me up around 11 am for the drive to Plovdiv. I could’ve taken the train, but trains are pretty dismal and slow in the Balkans and a ride in a newer Audi A3 wagon is worth the €100.

I went around the corner to a recommended breakfast spot and ate outside. The Bulgarian tomatoes are the best I’ve ever had, so I ordered a side of them with my omelet. The server was amused by my tomato addiction.

After breakfast I strolled through the city center to see the Soviet War Memorial, something that most former Warsaw Pact nations have dismantled. Bulgaria, along with Yugoslavia, never had Red Army troops stationed in the country after the end of the war, so they never suffered as much as other Soviet satellite states, which may explain the reluctance to tear down monuments.

After checking out of my Airbnb, I met Igor in his white Audi wagon and we took off for Plovdiv.

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