The most common response I received upon telling friends and family I was planning a trip to Bulgaria was the same, sudden bewildered look, followed by: “But why?”. I admit I enjoyed causing slight confusion by my odd choice of destination, though I myself wasn’t even entirely sure of my reasoning. Yes, the flight from Edinburgh to the capital city, Sofia, was only £17, but I suspect that was not the sole appeal that drew me to this far corner of Europe.
Situated on the Balkan peninsula, Bulgaria borders Greece and Turkey to the south, Romania to the north, Serbia and the Republic of North Macedonia to the west, and the Black Sea to the east. This affords the culture an intriguing mix of Mediterranean, Ottoman, and Slavic influences seldom found elsewhere. Allured by the prospect of an Eastern European adventure, two friends and I set out for a weekend trip to Sofia with minor anxiety and no expectations.
Although joining the EU in 2007 has brought vast improvements to both its economy and infrastructure, Bulgaria remains one of the poorest countries in Europe. Due to its affordability, visiting tourists are usually hosts of stag parties hailing from the UK or Germany (we had the distinct pleasure of sharing our flight over with a particularly charming group of drunk gentlemen). Stag parties aside, Bulgaria is a great place to visit when one is in need of a five-star vacation, but not in any position to afford one. The night of our arrival, my friends and I checked into a cavernous room at Sofia’s crown jewel of hospitality, the Grand Hotel Sofia, for a price cheaper than most Airbnbs in Paris or London. Although only in existence since 2004, one could imagine important visiting Soviet officials of years past feeling quite comfortable striding down the wide, emerald green-carpeted hallways which run The Grand Hotel. On our part, we felt right at home.
That first night, after navigating the hallways, we headed straight to Moma Food and Wine for a traditional Bulgarian dinner. Several plates of stuffed vine-leaves, homemade hummus, sheep’s cheese, and roasted aubergine later, we were assured Sofia was going to be just fine. Our suspicions were further confirmed when dessert turned out to be impossibly fresh yoghurt ladled with thick honey and wild strawberries. Full, and feeling slightly more at ease, we slipped into the backseat of a “такси” for what would prove to be a bumpy ride. I, hailing from the isle of Manhattan, have taken my fair share of harrowing taxi rides and never once been so sure of impending death as I was flying over the poorly cobbled streets of Sofia. When at last our driver swerved up to the hotel’s curb, we were so exhilarated from our near annihilation we nearly didn’t notice the squadron of police cars parked outside, seemingly in the process of arresting a fellow guest. Inside the lobby, neither concierge nor front desk were the least bit bothered by the excitement. Bulgaria was already everything I had both feared and wanted it to be.
Sofia is a city cradled just below the Vitosha Mountain, and the next morning we were privy to that certain light that only cities in the mountains yield, all pale and waning rose. The golden spirals of the Russian Orthodox church reflected upon the streets, making even those left unpaved appear gilded. For breakfast we headed to HleBar, a bakery haunted by locals and cool young couples. There we ate the famous banitsa, a delicious filo pastry made of eggs and cheese. Nearby is the imposing Neo-Byzantine Alexander Nevinsky Cathedral, one of the largest Eastern Orthodox Cathedrals and church buildings in the world. We circled around several times just to bask in all its grandeur. The square opposite the Cathedral is full of street vendors selling Soviet memorabilia and random knick knacks, for which anyone is welcome to bargain. It was especially surprising to see several paintings of Stalin’s image and, when my friend asked one vendor if he was personally a fan of the “man of steel,” the only response he cared to grunt was “Big choice.”
For an afternoon respite, we ducked into Tea House, a cafe hidden from the street in the back of an unassuming courtyard. Pages upon pages of specialty teas were available to choose from, as were a variety of vegan and gluten-free sweets. We helped ourselves to Bulgarian rose tea, which we drank on couches surrounded by stacks of books and old copies of The New Yorker.
Well rested, we embarked on a communist walking tour, booked through Lonely Planet. This was a great opportunity to learn about the city’s Soviet history, as well as walk through areas we otherwise would have missed. Our tour guide, Daniil, led us along a route, with stops including The National Palace of Culture, The Rila Hotel, and the former head quarters of the DS, Bulgaria’s secret police force. Daniil also spoke passionately about his family’s own experience under the communist regime, moving us all and making the gravity of the sights even more impactful. The irony wasn’t lost on us when our group stopped halfway through the tour for a bathroom break at a Starbucks, the familiar green logo falling just beneath the shadow of the nearby monument to the Soviet army. It was a strange sensation to be confronted with the proximity of such a violent past that, although since disappeared, is still very much felt.
Dinner was another meal full of fresh sheep’s cheese, hummus, and shopska salad, though this time at local favorite Made in Blue. Housed in a three-story building of the same color, Made in Blue is an eclectic restaurant spread across several lofty rooms. Even though all the other patrons appeared to be young and stylish, the restaurant itself seemed totally unprepared for tourists (refreshingly so). When we had finished ordering our meal, the waiter rolled his eyes before pleading: “Enough with the food.” Personally, I believe a great deal more could be accomplished, and at a much faster rate, if we were to all adapt Bulgarian manners.
After dinner we headed to Hambara, the former secret hangout for artists and the intelligentsia during the communist regime. Down a nondescript alleyway, with a locked door, Hambara lives up to its former reputation. Lit only by candles and playing jazz of another time, we felt transported, as though to a lost world. Our first day in Sofia was coming to a close, and we were truly beginning to feel like Bulgaria, with its strange mix of old and new, of decay and grandeur, was to occupy a sentimental place in our memory.
The next morning we awoke for brunch at The Little Things. There we feasted on fried eggs over herbed yoghurt, served with pita bread and sun-dried tomatoes. Afterwards, we walked down sunny streets towards the City Garden, Sofia’s oldest park. Our last moments in Sofia were spent sitting on a park bench opposite the Ivan Vazov Theatre, basking in the light and observing as life idly passed by. Groups of boys skateboarding mixed with old men playing games of chess, and babies in strollers rolling alongside babushkas.
We had experienced the real Sofia, the city of Ottoman rule, of the Soviet era, of the present day and, boarding the flight back to Edinburgh, we only wished that our 36 hours at this unusual crossroads of the world would remain forever out of time.
This article was edited for clarity on 22/02/2019