First Days in Sofia
[Sofia, Bulgaria, Sep 13/14, 2018]
My trip to Bulgaria this year was somewhat last minute. I was hoping to be able to go in September, but it wasn’t until only 2.5 weeks before my trip that I fixed the dates and booked the tickets. I am used to planning and booking my trips months in advance, so in a way it was nice not to have to spend months in anticipation of my flight to come. On the other hand, my weeks prior to the trip were so busy that I almost didn’t have time to get excited!
My flights went by quickly. I checked a bag, which I rarely do. I couldn’t bring my hiking poles and my dad’s shaving cream (only thing he ever asks for) in my carry on, so I didn’t have a choice. It was actually nice not to lug a suitcase around with me! I downloaded the Lufthansa app before my flight, and I was surprised to find lots of helpful info in it. I had a notice with my bag tag number in it, which made me feel better about checking it – it seemed like tracking it wouldn’t have been a problem if it got delayed. There were also boarding and gate change notices. I usually don’t download my air carrier’s apps to keep my phone clean, but I am starting to rethink this policy!
I made it to Sofia on the evening of September 13th. Of course, my mom had made sure she’d prepared some of my favorite dishes. One of the things I miss the most is lukanka – a type of salami unique to Bulgarian cuisine. Traditionally, it’s made of pork, veal and spices minced together and stuffed in a casing. Afterwards, it’s hung to dry for 40-50 days, during which it’s pressed into its typical flat form. It’s sliced thin and it’s typically eaten as an appetizer, although it’s also good as a topping for an open-faced sandwich. I actually got in trouble at US customs one year for having it in my luggage, not knowing I wasn’t supposed to. That was almost 20 years ago, when finding products from Bulgaria in the US was not that easy. Since then, things have improved greatly and now you can order it online, and if you live in one of America’s biggest cities, it’s likely there is a store in town that imports it.
By the end of the evening, my belly and my heart were both full! 🙂
The next day (Sep 14), I spent the day running some errands. We spent the morning calling around trying to find a reputable tour agency for a day trip to Rila national park, where I’d wanted to do a famous hike visiting seven of the 30+ lakes on the mountain. Bulgarians tend to rely on personal recommendations from friends or relatives when it comes to most things, rather than looking at online reviews like we do in the US. To find a reputable tour agency for my day trip, my dad first called the info line for the Rila mountain lift and asked for a referral for a local mountain guide. He then called the mountain guide and asked her which tour agency in Sofia she works with. Since their next trip to Rila was coming up the next day, 9/15, we went to pay the fee and sign the paperwork in person at the tour agency, which happened to have an office close by. We knew the street well but weren’t sure exactly where #65 was located. Google turned out to have the wrong info, so we ended up back-tracking a bit to find the right building, but in the end we got it squared away. Next, we went to renew my Bulgarian passport, which, annoyingly, expires every 5 years. On the way home, we went by Aleksandur Nevsky cathedral so my mom could show me exactly where I’d need to pick up my bus for Rila the next day – the location the tour agency gave us was behind the cathedral.
I was telling her about a cafe nearby with great views of the cathedral. I couldn’t remember the name of it, but mom realized she’d been there before. It’s the rooftop bar on the 9th floor of Sense hotel, which is nearby. There aren’t that many tall buildings in the city center, and I was excited to check it out. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay since they were getting ready to host a private event, but the waitress was very friendly and offered to take our photo.
I didn’t have plans in the afternoon, but a Bulgarian friend who lives in LA texted me to let me know she’s in town, so I met up with her. On the way there, I walked by this photo shoot at one of the city’s prettiest buildings, the former central mineral bath (now Museum of Sofia). A lot of people didn’t have hot water at home and used public baths for their (weekly) grooming. The building is more than 100 years old.
My friend and I spent a couple of hours shopping, walking around and taking photos. Sofia is in the midst of a great transformation; there are a ton of improvement projects going on with help from the European Union, and if one hasn’t been to Sofia in a little while, the city will look vastly different. At least that’s my excuse for playing tourist in my home town.