October 16, 2018
On our return from Cairo we reversed the express bus route from the airport and headed back to Petaluda house, where we had stayed during our last pass through Athens.
Our general goal was to go to Sofia Bulgaria but we planned an additional night in Athens to make up on the touristing we missed last time. We filled our one-night, two-day stay by visiting pretty much everything on the combined Acropolis ticket. It’s a ticket that covers the Acropolis and several other archaeological sites around the city. I was really uncertain how worth it it would be. The base ticket to the Acropolis was 20 euro and an extra 10 for the combined site (valid for 5 days). OMG that hurt.
First up was the Acropolis and Parthenon, the icon of Athens. It was cool to see the scale of the place and there were excellent views of the city in all directions. Unfortunately there was scaffolding covering one side and a crane sitting in the center. I think the economic crisis kind of just stalled the work that they were doing and so the crane is now a permanent monument to modern construction equipment inside the Parthenon, kind of like Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel. My feeling was that the coolest part of the Acropolis was being able to see it from all over the city.
We started off the next morning with a visit to the Panathenaic Stadium, the stadium used for the ancient Athens games. It has also been restored for the ceremonies for the Athens Olympics and as a finishing point for the Athens Marathon. There is a paid entry, but looking at the stadium over the fence was sufficient for our purposes. Apparently running on the track is possible from 7:30 am to 9 am. Unfortunately we were so beat from yesterday that we used the morning to sleep in and missed that, but it’s definitely something I would prioritize if we come back.
Next we headed to my favorite site on the unified ticket, the Temple of Zeus the Olympian. I am fond of making this ignorant joke that everything to see in Greece is just pillars. It’s pretty true though and this was just pillars. BUT! these pillars were all original and you still get a sense for the scale of the temple, which was huge. And you can get a lot closer than is allowed at the Parthenon. Also the view from here of the Acropolis is excellent. So in my opinion, if there was only one thing to do for cheap on a very short layover in Athens, this would be this. Nearby also is Hadrian’s arch. I know the desire was stupid, but I really wanted to walk under it. Confounded flimsy rope fences.
Then we wandered around to a few of the other sites. I wasn’t super excited with most of them, but I’m not a huge Greek history buff. We just kinda wandered around looking at the bases of pillars. I would have been fine just seeing these from across the fence without the ticket.
Our final site was the Ancient Agora. This was pretty cool and it definitely seemed like a great place for history aficionados. For us it was just cool to walk around. The best part was the Temple of Hephaestus, which is pretty much fully restored/preserved temple. Here the restoration work was done such that it all looked quite original. This was much more of what I was expecting from the Parthenon. Unfortunately, you can’t go into any of the temples.
We we spent the evening hanging out at the hotel where they let us keep our bags and use the shower for the day, then headed off late at night on a long overnight train journey from Athens to Sofia.
It was our first overland travel on the European leg of our journey, and I kind of assumed that train travel would be a breeze at this point, but that’s really not the case in the Balkans. The train from Athens to Sofia was not so straightforward as it looked on the map. The simplest solution was a 12 hr overnight bus. But this was a bit expensive. The cheaper option was to take the train (but only if you booked in advance and in person).
We booked the ticket at the main train station in Athens (the metro stop is named Larissa for some reason). Booking the ticket was simple to do, but watching the paper shuffling shenanigans was painful. There was stamping, stapling, sorting, filling, and everything was handwritten on contact paper. None of the tickets looked particularly convincing. The route itself seemed equally confusing. Train to Thessoloniki, a different train to the border, then bus across the border, then a train to Sofia. And we had arguably three tickets….? It turns out that one of those was a receipt. But it all worked in the end.
Getting onto our first train was a total mess. All the cars were numbered ‘2’ and no one knew how to find their seat, and of course, reversing course down a narrow train car stuff with people and their luggage just added to the confusion. It wasn’t a comfortable sleep, but after that the journey went surprisingly smoothly and we didn’t have any trouble with transitions. It’s not that anything was labeled or that we knew where to go. But whenever everyone got off the train, we followed. Then when we asked where to go next, we usually were brusquely shooed away in the right direction without really finishing our question. But we arrived in Sofia midday and set off walking to our hostel.
There are metro and bus systems in Sofia, but they are also a bit confusing and we found that pretty much everything was in walking distance. We stayed at Hostel 123, which I think turned out to be my favorite hostel during this trip so far. The staff were very welcoming and treated everyone like a friend and then that carried over to all the guests. So I feel like we met some really nice people during our stay. There was one guy from Chile doing a bike tour through Eastern Europe. I was jealous of that. And finally we had solid WiFi after quite a long time. Egypt and Greece were not so developed in that regard. Plus there was a huge breakfast spread every morning. It was a really great time spent there.
The main draw to Sofia for me was that my good friend Ivan (also the project lead during my doctorate) is from Sofia. So I’ve seen plenty of family vacation photos and heard stories of drowning in yogurt topped with feta (but not the Greek kind, it’s better in Bulgaria). So for me, just seeing what life was like in Sofia was a great experience.
But in general Sofia is a really easy city to visit. It is actually quite a small town and all of the main places to go are very centrally located downtown. It’s also a very calm and peaceful place. The main sights are churches and various ruins from the Roman city of Serdica which are scattered all over the city. It’s also especially beautiful at night.
The ruins were the first thing that we ‘visited’ just by walking randomly down the street. My impression of the ruins is that they provided a really cool backdrop for the city. They are all over the place. The most notable are the ruins at the Serdica metro station which were unearthed during the construction of the station in 2012. You can actually walk through the ruins on the way to the metro, which is pretty unique. There is also a hotel called Ampitheater of Serdica, which houses ruins from the amphitheater. They have a lounge area set up among the ruins. I like how the ruins have been integrated into the modern city, maybe not the best for preservation, but action figures are also a lot more fun out of the packaging.
The churches here were really phenomenal. I’m a bit temple/churched out so we saved these towards the end of the stay, but I’m really glad we went. I particularly think that Orthodox churches are really beautiful. That may mostly be because they are exotic to me, but still familiar enough for me to appreciate details.
Of the churches we visited, the Aleksandr Nevski Cathedral was the most ornate inside (but sorry no pictures allowed). It was interesting to contrast it with the nearby Russian church of St. Nikolas (also no pictures inside). They were very different sizes, but the general architecture and artwork was nice to compare.
I think that the most interesting aspect of these orthodox churches is that there is no seating areas and the altar area is separated from the congregation. My understanding is that Catholic churches used to be similar but slowly incorporated some aspects of Protestant churches to give what I think of now as a normal Catholic church.
Also nearby (these are all within like two blocks) was the older and more rustic St Sophia Church. The cool feature of this church is that there are tombs underneath and they have installed acrylic floor panels and cool lighting so you can see down into them from the church.
The final church that we visited was a bit out of the city. Ivan introduced us to his good friends from university, Nikola and Vikki. We only had a portion of the morning together, but they took us out to Boyana church and then out for coffee, and it was really great to meet them!
Boyana is a church that was built in three stages, with the earliest being 10th century. Through some fortunate series of events it survived the Ottoman rule and calls to renovate it. So now it consists of three sections from very different eras and has some really well preserved paintings on the interior (again no pictures inside were permitted). I really appreciated having a guide to point out all the cool details inside. So thanks a bunch to Nikola and Vikki for setting that up!
Another unique feature in Sophia is the presence of municipal hot spring water. There are spigots set up near to the mosque and history museum, here. Christina was pretty bummed to learn that there aren’t hot spring baths there though. We filled up our water bottles a few times, but I fully do not understand mineral water and the European fascination with it. Each time we went there were tons of locals filling up jugs of water.
We also spent a good deal of time shopping for winter clothes since we aren’t really prepared for below freezing weather. Sofia turned out to be great for this. There are tons of thrift stores of varying levels of sophistication. My favorite was Zig Zag in terms of selection and style.
The odd thing about these shops here is that most everything is sold by weight, which turns out to work surprisingly fairly. Obviously stuff like silk is going to be a killer deal, but it general it scaled pretty well for the stuff that we bought. Though, I stupidly bought a jean jacket because it looked cool, whereas a down jacket would have been a much more intelligent purchase in terms of warmth and price. So I’ll have to live with that. It really does look cool though. Keep an eye out of photos of it going forward!
There were also several new clothing stores that had pretty decent sales going on. The difficult thing with the ‘proper’ or firsthand stores was that they usually only had one of anything in any given size. So the stuff was new, but the shopping experience was just as time consuming as thrift shopping. Also the thrift shop stuff was usually in really good condition compared to what you find in the US. I think there might be official sorting centers that make sure the clothes are in clean good condition because they didn’t take any of our old clothes that we were trying to get rid of.
Anyway, these firsthand clothing stores were particularly frustrating when looking for shoes. I don’t get how they make the decision to get this model of shoe in a size 40 and this other shoe in 41. So we didn’t end up getting any new clothing items and stuck with the excellent selection in the thrift stores. I found the whole process delightful. It was fun to shop for things that we needed and great that there were thrift shops, and just fun to see how something like this differs in another country.
In terms of food, Bulgarian cuisine is pretty similar to Greek. There were a few notable dishes that are really worth mentioning. The first is moussaka, which is also Greek, but the difference here is that the Bulgarian version is less healthy and way tastier. Greek moussaka has eggplant, but Bulgaria’s is just meat and potatoes as a base. By all accounts, given my preference for eggplant, I should favor the Greek version but it turns out I’m 100% a Bulgarian moussaka guy.
Next up is a tripe soup called shkembe chorba. I still have trouble with tripe conceptually and don’t like the texture. So I wanted Christina to order this, but accidentally ordered it for myself just by asking about it at a restaurant. It turns out to be really good. Even I liked the texture of this tripe. The closest American equivalent would be that kinda soupy mac and cheese that you make if you add too much milk. It’s actually a lot like that, plus paprika. Mentally, I think I would have loved the stuff a lot more if the tripe was replaced with macaroni. Maybe I just want some mac and cheese right now. Anyway it was a bit of a surprise how much I liked it.
Finally I have to mention the beer. It’s really cheap here (and in the rest of the Balkans that we visit later). During our travels beer has always been pretty expensive compared to food and lodging, the world over. But here it’s as cheap as water. The 2.5 liter bottle in the picture below was like 2 USD. It’s not particularly great beer, but it’s all pretty darn good.
The craziest or most unique thing that we tried was a regional drink called boza. It’s a lightly fermented grain beverage. Apparently most foreigners dislike it. I had hopes of defiantly loving it. But it is pretty, pretty weird and doesn’t quite agree with my tastes. We got a big bottle from a bakery and I made a point to drink the whole thing. I can’t even really describe it. I think it tasted kinda like gravy or a beef broth but creamy. But also it was like none of those things. It was just strange and I couldn’t wrap my head around it. [Note from Christina: I would describe it as tasting a yogurt-sour liquid bread.]
“Deep” beer baby
Oh, also back to food, my absolute favorite Bulgarian food is this spread called lutinitza. It’s made of tomatoes and eggplant and capsicum and it’s amazing on bread. I left the country with a half full jar but still feel like I didn’t eat enough of the stuff. Luckily it’s common in neighboring countries, but nothing beats the Bulgarian version.
In terms of exercise we had some grand plans but ended up just running once during our stay. The large central park, Borisova Gradina, turned out to be an excellent spot. It was great just for running but also nice for run touristing because of the grand monuments from the communism. The park was especially gorgeous with the fall weather. There were all sorts of paths leading through canopies of golden trees.
I also went for a run in South Park. It was not as picturesque nor did it contain so many monuments but it was nice large park to run around in. Actually most of the parks that we walked through seemed very well suited for running and the city itself was as good as an urban environment can be for running; not very crowded and with driver’s that respected pedestrians. Basically this meant that it was easy to run to the park to run instead of walking to the park to run.
I think the capstone tourist event was climbing Mount Vitosha, just outside of the city. Here we got a slightly better look at Sofia public transit, since we generally walked otherwise. We took the train to metro station GM Dimitrov, then bus 69 to the end at the Simeonov Lift. I was pretty impressed with the bus stops which had timetables and live updates.
Figuring out which bus served a given destination though was a bit tricky and google maps doesn’t have bus routes. I ended up using a combination of these two sites to figure out where we were going. Later on I learned of the moovit app that seems to work pretty well in the Balkans, but I don’t know how well it works in Sofia.
The metro system was surprisingly difficult to understand. There aren’t many lines and the ones that exist kind of seem to go in a loop. The most frustrating thing is that when you get into a station and know your destination, it’s really confusing to know which side of the track to go on. The platforms are specified by the general neighborhood (google may or may not know the name) where the terminal station is, not the station names? So knowing the name of the terminal station, or the next station in your desired direction isn’t enough. It’s a unique and very frustrating system, but simple enough that it’s not a huge issue. The nice thing is that the tickets are flat rate of 1 USD though.
Once we arrived at the mountain base we bought a ticket on the cable car to go up to the ski lodge area. I never learned to ski when I lived in Colorado because it’s such an expensive sport. Well, off season ski lift prices in Bulgaria aren’t cheap either. But it got us up there (there may be an all bus alternative fyi). It’s about a 30 minute ride to the top and the views along the way were really phenomenal, so at least there was that. Fall is really amazing here.
At the top of the cable car we arrived at Aleko Hut and started up the mountain. We just followed the walking directions that Google gave to reach Black Peak. Go figure: no information on how to navigate the city by bus, but walking directions for the off season hiking trails at a ski area far out of town. Overall it was a pretty easy hike and well marked. We followed the switch backs up even though they were not necessary while the ground was dry. Some folks just hiked straight up the along the ski lift.
Eventually we joined a gravel road for about 1 km and then headed into a really cool boulder field. The hike to the top took about 1 hour from Aleko Hut. At the top we got great views of the plains at the top of the mountain. There were some cool weather structures up there also and it was awesome to see the clouds changing and moving over the mountain.
We spent a lot of time taking fun pictures on the mountain. I suppose I regret not just sitting up there and enjoying the scenery and the cool breeze more. We knew we had to rush down in order to catch the last cable car at 4:30 pm. But I specifically bought beer and snacks to enjoy at the top of the mountain. It was a bit tight, but we did have enough time to sit and enjoy a beer at least.
By the time we headed down it was starting to cloud up and we were rushing to catch cable car before it stopped for the day. All was going well and then it started to hail. We walked right into the clouds from the sun. It was an interesting transition descending into the hail. But it also made the going slow and a bit treacherous. We basically went straight down along the ski lift. The switchbacks would have been nice, but it was easier to follow the trail this way. In the end we made it down no problem and caught the cable car in plenty of time.
From there we simply reversed the route home with soggy shoes and took a warm shower. There is a lot more to see in Bulgaria and I would love to go explore some of the other nature and hiking in the country and stuff my face with moussaka.
At the end of our week in Sofia, Christina headed off for a shorting meeting in the US, and I went for a solo to visit Sarajevo.