A weekend in Bulgaria

Flag of Bulgaria

Just two weeks after my excellent trip to Romania it was time to go to Bulgaria. This time however it was a much shorter trip, but I was looking forward to it a lot nonetheless. My former girlfriend who now is a friend of mine is from Bulgaria, and I figured if the Bulgarians are anything like her then I would like it a lot. And I did.

The destination was the capitol Sofia and the first thing I noticed was the scenery from the airplane window. As we took a slight left turn above Belgrade and began to descent, I realized that I did not do my homework. I didn’t expect the mountains surrounding the city. Could it be that the country was beautiful?

I met Liam, my travel companion from Bucharest, at the hotel. Jon, the third guy to join us would arrive one day later. We set out to explore the city. First things first: most of the writing and the names of streets use the Cyrillic alphabet, but it’s easy enough to decipher if you have a pronunciation chart in your pocket. I caught myself reading signs aloud. Pharmacy, beauty parlor, dentist, ..

The city has a cozy feel to it. Wide streets  (at least in the old town) are rare. Although Sofia is one of the oldest cities in the world, it still displays the look of former soviet times in many places. In particular there are still monuments that remind visitors and locals of the sacrifices and heroics of the red army and certain important communists. So I assume that there is still some nostalgia left with the population - or maybe there’s a stronger sense of kinship with Russia or perhaps Serbia, than there is with the western EU countries. Perhaps it is a sentiment of the older generation, I don’t know. I wish I had had more time to find out.

Anyway, I think one can compare parts of Sofia to the Streets of paris. Yes yes, I know, what a lack of imagination to come up with a comparison, but it seems fitting. All the cafes, bars and restaurants with the tables on the sidewalks and the people relaxing..

The parks are nice to walk around and there is places hidden all over the city, for example clubs and bars that are hidden from plain sight. If you find them, they may seem empty judging from outside. But don’t be fooled, it’s probably packed inside. And Bulgarians like to party..

The women are, of course, beautiful. I expected that since my ex is Bulgarian, but .. sigh.. I wish, the streets in my hometown would look like those in Sofia.

Back on topic. The people are very friendly and helpful with foreigners. While it’s uncommon to find an elderly person that speaks English (no problem, sign language and knowing 2 or 3 words goes a long way) the young people almost all do. They will sometimes go to great lenghts to help a confused tourist find his way, even walk him to his destination.

Quick info about prices: Same as Romania, about 50% of what you pay in the western EU countries. Quick info about safety: It is a very safe place. It seems, very much like Bucharest, to be much safer than say Frankfurt or London. Even late at night when the streets are emptier. Beware of the taxis though, theres a slight chance to be overcharged. But other than that: Don’t worry.

I would usually end here, because 3 days just isn’t enough to find out a lot. However, I got lucky.

I met a girl called Ina whom I asked about nightlife recommendations. She gave me some good tips, but on Sunday she called me up and asked if I wanted to join her and her friends on a hike on the mountain Vitosha (the big mountain directly outside the city.). Are you kidding me? Of course I’d like to join!

Vitosha Mountain in Sofia

So she picked me up with her car and we drove about 15 kilometers up the mountain where we met her friends and parents. Most of them didn’t speak English, but she would translate and also tell me a little bit about the Bulgarian people. She would say that they are a little bit pessimistic, the negative outcome would come to mind first. But also that they love nature and their city and country very much. She told me about “Aide” (I hope I remember it right), which seems to be a word that can mean 1000 things. From “Let’s go” to “What the hell” or.. I don’t know.. “Yes, I’d love pancakes for breakfast!”.

The day began with a picnic at a clearing at about 1500 meters above sea level, roughly 1km above Sofia. It was slightly colder and I had to wear my jacket. We had snacks and I had a beer. After all, I was on holiday.

"Look, Sofia! My lovely city!" she’d say with excitement as we’d start to walk down a path through the forest after lunch, while the buildings of the city were unveiled between the treetops below us.

The path was steep and it was not entirely comforting that we’d have to go back up later. But we arrived at our destination, the Boyana waterfall, an hour later with some of our group already slightly exhausted. 

There was a couple dozen people getting wet in the moisture of the falling water and again, Sofia was shining at us through the trees beneath. After one hour we started our hike back up to the clearing where the car was.

I have to say, this day at Vitosha really made my trip. Ina is a wonderful and fun person and I am sad to go back now without being able to meet her again to properly say thank you. But I believe we eventually meet the friends we make on our travels again. Perhaps I’ll even have the opportunity to show her my town one day.

I am just not sure what my town will be. I am not ready to settle down yet. Who knows.. 

Bulgaria (and of course I am saying this as a person who did not see 99,9% of Bulgaria…) gives me a sense that Europe is a very diverse place. The people look slightly different, they walk slightly different, they speak a much different language.. things like that. I guess I draw pleasure from noticing those small differences… And while the blue flag of the EU can be found in Sofia as it can be found in Bucharest, Warsaw, Madrid and Berlin, the places differ so much that one perhaps does not need to travel far to discover something new and fascinating.

I wish to come back to southeast Europe. The next time I’ll take a month or two and I’ll make an effort to learn the local language. Sometimes short trips can leave us with a wish to come back for more.

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Footnote: There was one thing that I really liked about an ATM I used in Sofia. After you select the amount of money you want to withdraw and while the cash is being prepared in the machine, it asks you if you want to donate 1 BGN to a Unicef-charity. It’s brilliant. It’s not a lot of money, so the hesitation to press yes is reduced. And it’s so simple. Hope the idea spreads.

Romania, a surprise

Disclaimer: I was hung over and sleep depraved when I wrote this at Bucharest Airport. But I just re-read and I still agree. :)

Romanian Flag

I just spent 10 days in Romania. There was not a specific reason why I went, it was just a country that I have never visited so I booked a flight. A friend decided to join when he found out, he would only be able to spend 3 nights though, so for the rest I would be on my own. Other friends gave me a quizzical “Why do you want to go THERE?” or warned me about being robbed and assaulted.

The first event in Romania was that just meters above the ground during landing at Bucharest airport the engines of the plane suddenly went to full power and the plane rapidly pitched up.  We were pressed into the seat. The girl next to me said: “Perhaps they realized it’s the wrong airport. There are two you know.” The pilot informed us shortly after that another plane has suddenly rolled onto the runway. The wild east I thought.

I stayed at a serviced apartment in the old town near Unirii square. Razvan, the manager of these apartments, picked me up with his car. After a couple of questions he started talking about Bucharest. A very likable guy. He wasn’t the only one as I should find out.

First things first: The city has a population of about 2 million and while it has areas with beautiful, old buildings that remind visitors why it was once called the “Paris of the East”, most of the city looks typically post-communist. The women, this has to be mentioned, are very attractive on average and know how to dress well. Many are straight out stunningly beautiful. People seem to be moving throughout the city in groups. Rarely a lone pedestrian can be found. 99,9% of people have black hair and dark eyes. But that might differ in other parts of the country, I am not sure.

The apartment was in top condition and located in a six story building in one corner of the Lipscani district, the main nightlife area of town. It’s just awesome to live that close to the action, no subway or taxi necessary at all times. I was given the keys and was instructed to do what I want, because this is my apartment now. In case of any trouble I could always call Razvan. My neighbors were mostly older people who probably have been living there for many years.

I’ve met my friend who arrived a few hours earlier and after a quick dinner we hit the streets of Lipscani. The area got busy around 10 PM and would get even busier until the morning hours. Thousands of people were walking the streets between the bars, clubs and restaurants, again, mostly in groups. Almost every bar had tables outside which were crowded, something that I haven’t seen in a while. We arrived on Friday, it would be only slightly less crowded during the week.

One more thing about the bars and clubs: They range from cozy quiet hangouts for friends to loud techno clubs that blast their music out into the streets. But in all of them smoking is allowed. There are it seems so far no anti-smoking laws in Romania, although that may change with the EU forcing their rules on the local government.

Gypsies: Romania has a bad image abroad because they are perceived as stealing gypsies and con-artists. Sometimes I’d see somebody and assume he’s a gypsy, but that, as I found out, did not mean they were thieves or beggars by default. I was approached by beggars, small children, a few times but was told to not give them anything. They probably had their S-class mercedes already and didn’t need any more money. So I was told.

Safety: I rarely felt as safe in a foreign capital as I did in Bucharest. And I am not a naive tourist. There simply is no sign of threat whatsoever. I think Berlin and London are vastly more dangerous. So forget all that crap you hear.

The main tourist attraction seems to be dictator Ceausescu’s palace - now the home to the Romanian government. An immensely huge building with a road that resembles the Champs-Élysées in Paris and leads up to their own version of the Arc de Triomphe. I didn’t go inside though. When I planned to do it was (orthodox) Easter and there were no tours. There was, however, a drift racing event right in front of the palace for at least 2 days.

The parks are particularly great. Huge areas of green lawns, trees and sometimes with a lake, they are located in central areas throughout the city. We’ve seen many bikers and inline skaters there. You can imagine pavement walkways in all directions with park benches facing them conveniently for an afternoon of people-watching.

As a rule of thumb expect to pay about half what you would pay in western EU countries.

There’s many more things to be said, I could list facts all day, but the fact is you should just trust me and visit.

I could say I don’t know what it is that is so damn appealing about being here, but I do. It’s the people. As a visitor you feel very welcome. The people are warm and enthusiastic. 99,9% of people I’ve spoken to (those includes mostly the younger generation) speak fluent English. They might even surprise you, because they speak 5 other languages as well, including yours. And if they do, they do it well. They seem to be extremely good educated and some are very well traveled.

There’s a sense of love for their own country, pride, the will to improve things, and a generally positive outlook to life. Perhaps this is blue-eyed, but it is the impression that I got from the people I have met here and spent some time with.  Sometimes there’s an almost absurd talent. Go to a karaoke party (almost as popular here as in Japan!) and you’ll see (or rather hear) what I mean.

So what happened. 

I’ve had a blast, even after my friend left and I was alone in this city. I could have easily fallen in love with a girl, and I think she did fall in love with me. I went on taxi-rides with complete strangers without knowing the destination or what the hell they were saying. I was thrown out of a club because my date was a little bit too alive that evening. I saw many near-escalations, but somehow nobody really seems interested in violence here. There’s a temper though, and it keeps up the pace of life. There are roads in Transilvania that are designed to kill you, never take your eyes off the road. But they are a pleasure to drive for every motorist.

There are witches, black magic and strange rituals. Some say that if you go into a particular forest at night, the lure of singing will bring you to a place where you will see naked girls dancing. They will be so beautiful that it will drive you mad or have you killed. Just like sirens in the sea, these creatures live in the forests. There are also vampires, of course. The stories can be traced back to some rituals that are still going on. Would you believe there are people that even today will take a wooden stick and ram it through a dead corpses chest? I wouldn’t either. But then again, it’s probably true. There are places that will look very spooky if you take a picture. You might hear strange sounds and see weird things.

But also you might just have a brilliantly good time. Trust me. Go to Romania, make the conscious decision to mingle and indulge in local life, and you’ll see for yourself.  You might also have a hard time to find another tourist. At least in Bucharest there don’t seem to be that many. At least around this time of year.

Go, come back, and tell your friends.

I like to summarize my trips in one or two sentences. This is what I came up with for Romania:

If Germany is Europe’s high-tech factory and France is Europe’s kitchen, then perhaps Austria is Europe’s ski-resort and England is where Europe’s humor comes from.

But Romania is Europe’s heart. And it’s beating wildly.