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3 August 2017

Discovering Sofia, Bulgaria and Facing Culture Shock

Last week I travelled to Eastern Europe for the first time. I flew from Bologna to Sofia with a flight company new to me, Wizzair, which was pretty good (massive plane; no turbulences). I was slightly nervous since I didn't know what to expect and I hadn't done my research as I tend to do before venturing to new places. I got there with a suitcase and a backpack full of belongings. I didn't trust bringing a handluggage in case airport staff put it in the hold and for some reason felt like I could lose it all. This led to having too much stuff on me and eventually... I dropped my passport! This has never happened to me before as I like to keep checking that I have everything on me. Anyway, I only realised that at the passport checking point. I tried to keep calm, but was so freaking out inside. A nice Spanish girl reassured me and as soon as the stewardesses came out they told me they'd found it and someone was bringing it to me. Thank God! By that time I was the only person left in the passport control area; it was just me and some Soviet-looking guards, in the night time, at a Bulgarian airport. Nothing wrong with that, but if I have to be honest with you, it made me feel slightly out of place. Eventually, airport staff kindly brought me my beloved passport and I could get out into Sofia.

Next, I was picked up at the airport by the hotel owner. I was recommended the hotel as the owner would come and collect me as opposed to getting tricked by a taxi driver (it can happen if you're a tourist). All good. Until another hotel guest and I got into the car and he started driving like crazy. I'm staying near the airport, I thought, so it can't last that long. Which it didn't luckily. Even though it was night time, I realised the streets around the hotel looked very poor: there were lots of crumbling buildings and light cables hanging. By this point, I was feeling quite adventurous and like the character of some novel who'd randomly found herself in ex Soviet Union. I checked in at the reception, which we might as well call the owner's bedroom and living room, featuring a kettle, clothes, a pair socks, old flowery sofas, some postcards, a blurry booking.com review and lots of leaflets in Cyrillic. I tried to act as normal as possible, even though, again, I was feeling slightly out of place. The owner was very nice though; besides the useful lift to the hotel, he changed my euros into Bulgarian levs (the national currency; lev = lion) and told me he'd bring me breakfast the next morning.
My bedroom was actually fine and like the 'reception' it gave me a taste of Bulgaria. Lots of colourful oil paintings representing rural landscapes hanged on the walls and the room was furnished in simple furniture from the 90s . I switched on the TV (also from the 90s - those TVs that made a noise and a flash when you switched them on) and found lots of badly dubbed Italian police series which I found hilarious.
 The following morning I went downstairs, and shyly said hi to a guy and a girl who were sitting outside, thinking they were Bulgarian. I then realised they were American and spoke English! I was so glad as I still felt quite out of place from the previous day and I was up for making friends. They told me about themselves, who'd travelled all the way from Michigan and were going to stay in rural Bulgaria for three months to look after some dogs at a shelter. We had breakfast (croissants with dates jam and goat cheese rolls) and talked about different cultures and travel goals. We then went to Sofia by bus which was actually very efficient and punctual.

The road of the hotel I stayed at / Sofia's outskirts (much rougher than the centre as you'll see in the pictures later in the post)
A Bulgarian taxi!

My first encounter with lots of Bulgarians was on the flight, but it was only on the bus that I realised how serious everyone looked. People in Bulgaria are very kind and helpful when it comes to giving directions; at the same time, they are quite serious and don't smile much. I wondered whether it was because of the Soviet legacy - it must have been very hard to live at such a time and I don't blame them. 
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral - unfortunately I didn't have enough time to go and visit it but it looked stunning from a distance.

I found Sofia to be a unique city and probably what I'd imagined it to be. There are lots of big avenues crossed by an old-fashioned tramway and several big Soviet buildings.
I love seeing writings in characters different from Latin even though I can't understand them!
There were lots of kiosks around the city like this one
Some elderly people playing chess in a park

 After wandering for a bit, we joined a free walking tour in English organised by Free Sofia Tour, which was quite good and gave lots of local insights to the city.
We were split into three groups then started the tour. There are lots of statues of lions like this one around the city as apparently Bulgarians love this icon!
This was the Banya Bashi Mosque, which was built during the Ottoman Empire. Banya, which means baths, refers to the natural springs it was built over. 
Sveta Nedelja church and some Orthodox priests walking past it



Central Mineral Baths of Sofia - we drank some thermal water here which is meant to be good for you!
Some sort of important political building. I liked the guards' outfits. 


The Rotunda of St George - probably the oldest monument in all Sofia. 
Super sinister anecdote: there are lots of little balconies like this in Sofia's banks so that in case of a recession bankers could commit suicide!


We stopped by Sofia's Ivan Vazov theatre which I found very beautiful. I really liked the light blue fountain and the statue of a dancing girl you can see from the top of the square. Ivan Vazov was a famous Bulgarian poet to whom a library was also dedicated in Sofia. Apparently he was a big charmer and died during an 'act of love', while the official version is that he had a heart attack (I love these urban legends!).
These little red bracelets are given out in March for the start of spring. You can receive them from family, friends and people you don't know and go back home with your arms full of bracelets. Apparently Bulgarians can even recognise each other abroad by seeing others wearing them. 

Sadly, I had to leave to get on a second plane to Burgas, my final destination, but I was glad to have been able to spend a few hours in Sofia and get an idea of what an average Eastern European capital city is like. It wasn't easy and it took a few days after Sofia to get used to the place; Bulgaria is very different from Western and Central Europe. On the other hand, I tried to see this as a positive travelling challenge and enjoy myself as much as I could.
Before ending my post, I wanted to share pictures of Sofia's metro inside the airport which looked stunning and very modern compared to the rest of the city and transport. Apparently you also get free Wi-Fi there! 

I hope you enjoyed my post - it took a long time to edit all pictures and write the post but I also really enjoyed doing it. Have you ever been to Sofia or a Eastern European town? Please share in the comments below!

References and advice: 
- You can check out Sam and Kent's Instagram page at @kentandsamsadventures;
- When first getting to Bulgaria, you might want to bring some food with you, especially if you're a picky eater. It's quite hard to find big supermarkets and most of them only have basics. I would have liked to have some food with me when I first got there;
- Try not to get too shocked by cultural clashes because it might ruin your journey. Even though I'm used to travelling it took me a few days to adjust, which is fair, but I wish I'd relaxed a bit more. Just try to enjoy yourself!

6 comments:

  1. Hi, Assia! I'm Berta, I was in your Spanish Translation class during first semester and somehow I ended up here! I also follow you on instagram and I absolutely love your lifestyle pics. I've never tried yoga, but I love pilates <3 Anyway, I've never been to Bulgaria, but from your pics, it reminds me quite a lot to Bratislava. I went there with friends while we were interrailing, because it was between two important cities we were visiting, Viena and Prague. I don't know what was I expecting, honestly, but it shocked me a lot. Some buildings were beautiful, some streets as well, but there was a different ambience compared to the rest of european cities we visited. Everything seemed to be so poor and it was almost sad to see some parts. However, our guide in the walking tour was very friendly and the food was amazing! Maybe, if I come back in the future, things will be better :) I definetely think it's key to keep your mind open. Enjoy the rest of your trip and congrats for your graduation!

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    1. Hi Berta, thank you for approaching me - I love meeting new readers of my blog! Crazy that we were in the same class, it's such a small world! Did you enjoy your time in Bristol?
      I get you, that's exactly how I felt when I first got to Sofia. I've never been to Prague or Bratislava. Does Prague have a more modern feeling to it as opposed to Bratislava? Speak soon and let me know if you ever try yoga! :)

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  2. I love the photographs as always and your stories along the way! It looks like you had a nice trip :) Can't say I've ever been to Eastern Europe before! I think posts and photos like this are gonna be great to look back on :)

    ~Lor
    acozyspace.com

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    1. Hi Lor, thanks so much for popping by as usual and yeah it'll definitely be great to look back at these pictures :)

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