Arriving in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria during a red warning heat wave was not quite what I’d anticipated. Leaving SE Asia after a number of years of intense heat and humidity I was seeking some respite. I sort of found it….no humidity. Even in the heat wave it was definitely bearable to be out and about no matter what time of the day. The temperature actually dropped at night to make sleeping possible.
Sofia is not a particularly inspiring city. It was bombed heavily during WW2, as Bulgaria sided with Nazi Germany, and reconstructed along the principles of Soviet Socialism with ugly architecture, huge square shaped buildings with regimented windows facing grand sweeping plazas for 1000s of people to gather. Today, 30 years after the fall of communism, it seems to be caught in between remembering the previous 50 years and trying to forget them.
I felt safe wandering around even around the train station area where I was staying even with it’s dilapidated pavements and cobbled streets, and foul smelling metal wheeled waste bins on every street, frequented by cats. Getting around was easy on the buses or metro or old trolley trams ironically travelling alongside modern flashy Ferraris and the occasional horse and cart. there was the occasional powerful noisy motorbike and almost no motorcycles. Bulgaria is one of the poorest countries in the EU, even so there appears to be a better standard of living than some of the Asian countries I’ve visited.
I saw amazon like women who were a little scary, over stuffed muscle men with Barbie doll wives/girlfriends and shiny wedding suits. women have boobs and curvy figures, men with pot bellies. Almost everyone smokes and everywhere, in the street, restaurants, cafes, on the balconies even on the train platforms. Whilst I particularly hate the smell of cigarette smoke I was surprised that it wasn’t actually a problem as most smokers were considerate.
Fresh fruit and vegetables are in abundance and size and shape not restricted by any EU dictate. Tomatoes are huge and taste divine. Figs feature a lot also, fig jam, jig jelly and of course the fresh version. Not like the dried ones that hit the shops every Christmas in the UK.
Tourists are mainly Russians, Ukrainians and East Germans. Sadly the noisy, beer swilling yob type British lads on a stag weekend have discovered Bulgaria is quite cheap for them. I haven’t seen their type for so long and was shocked at their behaviour and how it intruded on people out at the end of the day as the heat diminished.
I missed seeing orange clad monks, but here they’re replaced with long bearded priests dressed in black robes.
Youngsters are not as narcissistic as the Asians and don’t take endless selfies. In fact you hardly see anyone playing with their phones especially when working.
Aside from some of the differences I’ve mentioned I finally had cold water running from a tap. It might not sound much but when you’re washing your face and want to splash on invigorating cold water, in Asia it’s always warm or boiling depending on the time of day and how long the water tanks have been exposed to the sun.
Bulgarians have a confusing way of shaking their head from side to side for ‘Yes and nodding for ‘No’. So when you meet me be aware I also do the Indian head wobble which means various things, I have a 1000 smiles from Thailand, and now I have the Bulgarian tradition of an opposite gesture to what we know.
And I can breath. The air quality is good. I’m not coughing.
Things to see and places to visit: lots of religious buildings, (not sure how they survived the bombing) churches both Orthodox and Christian, the Mosque and Sofia Synagogue, the markets filled with lace items, old photography equipment, paintings, Soviet and Nazi memorabilia such as pins, daggers, uniforms, watches, medals, Nazi pamphlets and other Nazi items. Lots of murals of Jesus, communist monuments, go and watch changing of the guard at the Presidential Palace, hang out in the heat of the day in one of the city’s many gardens, Boulevard Vitosha now pedestrianised and the place to hang out and more.
In 2018, Bulgaria’s Jewish community will mark the 75th anniversary of the prevention of the deportation of 50,000 Bulgarian Jews, and mourn the more than 11,000 Jews from territories under Bulgarian administration on behalf of Berlin in the Second World War. These Jews were deported from territories in parts of northern Greece and Yugoslavia, and the vast majority were murdered at Treblinka and other camps. Less than a dozen survived. They did not have Bulgarian citizenship because of the provisions of the anti-Semitic 1940 Defence of the Nation Act.