Retro: Sofia, Bulgaria

A bit of background.  In 2009, I had my first shot at doing a legit backpacker trip with Daina and Laird.  The original plan was to head to South America and do the Inca Trail and Easter Island.  However, Daina had the chance for some career advancement through a job switch, which was great for him professionally.  However, it would keep him from taking a vacation over the summer, as he would not be allowed to have vacation time until he had put in a year’s worth of work.

My family had talked for a while about doing a “Heritage” trip to Eastern Europe to see the Ukraine (background) and Belarus (where my grandparents were born).  I figured 2010 would be the time to do it, but I couldn’t get too many bites from the rest of the family due to school and work comittments.  So that left me and my 64 year old mom.

It’s a totally different style of trip than I’ve ever been on before, but amazing nonetheless.  I had originally posted most of these on Facebook, so I’ll be taking those posts and fixing them up a little bit.  Hope you enjoy!

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So I’m officially off on the whirlwind European tour which will see me hit six countries by the end of the summer. For those of you who don’t know, this is a “Family Discovery Trip”, in that a) I’m Ukrainian in background and b) I’m traveling with my mom of all people. Gotta say, as I was getting ready for this thing, I was a LITTLE bit worried about running about with a 64 year old woman but, if day one is any indication, it shouldn’t be an issue. Mom was with me every step of the way, never tiring out or complaining, running all over Sofia. Things are looking good!

So one thing about this trip – it’s kind of a different style than what I’ve been used to in that we’re going to be going on a lot of “tours”. Now, I say tours because, originally, I had planned this as just me and mom (who is fluent in Russian, which is helpful), but then she decided she would feel safer on a tour. Considering jumping on an off a bus of thirty people is one of the levels in my personal hell, I wasn’t such a big fan of that. So we compromised and we’ll be doing small tours with private cars and drivers for some of the days. I know, not a hard done by compromise, but considering how I usually travel, it’s probably the best way to bridge the gap.

Getting in to Sofia at 1pm in the afternoon, we decided it would be best to hit the ground running to squash any jet lag we may be dealing with.    We had a city tour scheduled the next day, which was pretty neat and it came with our own guide and car, but we didn’t really see anything that day that we didn’t see on day (afternoon?) number 1.  We definitely saw the highlight reel of Sofia.  Everything is about a twenty minute walk from our hotel and the city itself is not particularily huge. It has the Eastern Europe vibe I anticipated, where everybody seems a bit rough around the edges but mostly friendly. 

There are a couple of fantastic sites.  Lots of Ottoman style architecture, mixed in with some Russian Orthodox and Communist influence.  We were about an eight minute walk from the Old Baths, which still have some functioning springs on the outside.  A few mosques dot the city, old stone churches are hidden away inside shopping malls and building complexes, including the 3rd Century Church of St. George.  Not the biggest in terms of size, but impressive that it lasted so long and the setting – government buildings – gives it an interesting look. 

The Aleksander Nevsky Church is massive and beautiful, looking almost like an Ottoman Mosque.  Golden domes on top of golden domes and a neat looking crypt down in the basement.  Lots of big laneways leading up to the church as well, similar to St. Issac’s in St. Petersburg, which makes it easy to get a good photo from almost any angle.

We also managed to check out a couple of museums, including the way more interesting than I thought it would be Archeological Museum, and some art galleries within the city, which were good ways to kill time amongst all the walking.  We also strolled the local markets as our guide warned us to watch out for “gypsies”, which will become an unfortunate trend over the next couple countries.  By that, I mostly mean the racism directed at the Roma. 

To our guide’s credit, she was sympathetic to the situation faced by the Roma in most Eastern European countries, treading that fine and difficult line where both the racism directed against them and the actions of some of the Roma community end up contributing to the larger problem. 
Having taught Roma students in Canada, I wasn’t going to let racism go.

The first night featured an AMAZING Bulgarian meal at the Dragon House, and there’s enough good eats in Sofia to satisfy anybody’s appetite. Cheap, too.  The Dragon House meal, which was the most expensive,  came out to about 27 bucks and my portion of that was two BIG bottles of beer and a massive plate of wild rice, lamb and greens in the “Bulgarian Style”. And the menu was made of wood. Yeah, I know!

Overall, Sofia made for a good start to the trip, kind of an Eastern Europe 101.  You have your Ottoman Influence, your Communist Influence, some local flavour, warnings about Roma and cheap food.  Obviously, that’s boiling things down WAY too much, but you’re going to notice the trend as you read the upcoming posts, so I figure I might as well mention it now. 

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