Thursday, 12 April 2018

Sofia: Unexpected Bliss

Deciding the next travel destination is always a challenge.

How far? How near? A new country? A city break? A sun holiday?

My mum asked if I could help plan the next family holiday.
After mulling it over,  I decided it was going to be somewhere new in Europe where none of us had ever been to. 

So we hit up Bulgaria - in its capital city, 


By chance, we were in Sofia during their Easter weekend according to the Orthodox Christian calendar. We didn't realise this and we were lucky enough to experience a very quiet and peaceful Sofia for the first few days and then its usual busy self on the other days.

We were also introduced to some local traditions like the Martenitsa (мартеница), a tradition of a red and white bracelet during the Baba Marta festival. 

The intertwining of the red and white strings represent the unification of females and males and symbolises fertility. 

This bracelet must be gifted from one to another and worn on the wrist until a blossoming tree is spotted or a flying storm. It is then removed from the wrist and tied under a blossoming tree to represent the beginning of Spring!

As we were in Sofia for six days, I wanted us to have a comfortable and convenient location with a communal area to hangout together. 

So.. Where did we stay?

A recently refurbished, modern, three-double-bedroom apartment smack in the middle of the city.

Located on Ekzah Yosif Street, it was only a two-minute walk away from main attractions such as the Sofia Synagogue, Banya Bashi Mosque, and Tsentralni Market.

The 6D/5N stay cost us €285.85 for the whole apartment which amounted to approximately €72 each for the four of us. It had all the necessary facilities and it was very convenient with its location as well as its pin-code access.

So... What did I do in Sofia?

1. Go for the Free Sofia Tour

As there were tours daily at both 11:00 and 18:00, it was easy to be spontaneous and join a tour at any day we felt like it. 
Niki, our guide ,was brilliant and brought his own special touch to the tour.

His personal stories mixed with a rich knowledge of Sofia's history, complimented by the spectacular weather made for a very memorable experience.

Some of the places we visited along our route are below:-

Sveta Nedelya Cathedral 
(Катедрален храм, Света Неделя) 

Changing of the guards at the National Assembly of the Republic of Bulgaria 
(Народно събрание на Република България)  

The Saint Sofia Monument 
(Статуя на София)

St. George Rotunda Church 
(Ротонда Свети Георги)

Ruins discovered at Serdika during the construction of the metro. 
(комплекс Антична Сердика)

Tsentralna Banya Park 
(Градина, Централна баня)

Regional History Museum of Sofia 
(Централна минерална баня - Музей за история на София)
which used to be the a public bath house back in the day.

But the locals still gather there to collect their drinking water from the hot springs!

City Garden (Градска градина)

Live entertainment may be available ;)

Cathedral of St.Alexander Nevski 
(Храм-паметник, Свети Александър Невски)

2. Get lost in the city.

After learning about the history and visiting most of the famous sites, I spent my time wandering while simultaneously:-

Discovering random beautiful streets,
Trying local delicacies, and
People watching.

Vitosha Street

Lyuben Karavelov Street 

Crystal Garden (Градина Кристал)

Sofia Centre, Shipka Street

Russian Church, Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiiski
(Руска Църква, Свети Николай Мирликийски)

National Palace of Culture (Национален дворец на културата)
 also known as "NDK"

3. Meet up with locals and other travellers!

On my first night out, I made friends with four Italians who were travelling as well! Mattia, Francesco, J and a name that skips my mind.

We discovered a strange little random tavern bar which was in a basement on the right of Halbite (Халбите).

The owner welcomed us with plates upon plates of glorious food and drink at around midnight. There was no menu, he just literally came out with endless dishes of food.

He then continued to introduce videos of his slightly famous nephew singing on Youtube while we all felt socially pressured to express our interest in. 

Definitely an intriguing and memorable scenario that made us all uncomfortably laugh. 

We stumbled into Terminal One, a bar/club that mimicked an airport in its design. Had some beer, played some foosball, and danced the night away. We may have then continued the dancing and singing on the streets as well.

Bulgaria would not have been complete if I did not actually get to meet some locals! So I made an amazing new friend, Rado, who brought me around the city, the local parks, and up a tower to the 24th floor to get a bird's eye view of the city!

Last but not least, I met up with Tung for a coffee! Another local in Sofia who moved there at a young age from Vietnam!

4. Hike up Vitosha Mountain

To get an escape from the city, we went to the Vitosha mountain which is only a 15 minute drive from the city. 

Instead of going at it by ourselves, we decided to join the free hiking tour!

The Green Sofia tour organises daily tours at 11:00 departing from the National Theatre. Altogether the nine of us hopped into taxis and got to Boyana church, where we started our hike.

The first beautiful stop on our hike was the blue-green Boyana lake where we were serenaded by several frogs ribbiting away.

Next up was a pit stop for a breather while taking in the scenery.

Finally, we got to the Boyana Waterfall which cooled us down with its light misty spray of refreshing water.

Then we headed to the top of the waterfall where we munched onour packed lunches and enjoyed the view.

We chose such a lovely day to hike as it was lovely and warm with clear skies.

Boyana Church Photo

We then returned to the Boyana Church to check out the ancient paintings on its interior walls dating back to the 12th century (Cost: 10 levs / €5). 

Unfortunately, photography was prohibited inside so you'll just have to go there to check it out yourself ;)

If hiking is not your cup of tea, there is a beautiful alternative!
Drive up to one of the lookout points at night for a mesmerising view of the city.
It gets pretty chilly though, so bring a good jacket, and not be silly like me.

(The experience may be enhanced if you have a local with you!)

5. Get a crash course in all things Bulgarian

As if we did not go on enough tours already, we joined the 3 hour culture tour organises by 365. Our tour guide, Ani, brought myself and Sonya through as many Bulgarian traditions as she possibly could.

To start of the tour, she splashed some water on the ground and got us to walk on it which symbolised us starting a something new.

To make sure we started the day with a happy tummy, she bought us some traditional banitsa (phyllo pastry filled with salty cheese). 

Other fillings were also available such as spinach or caramelised apples.

This had to be washed down with a traditional sour yoghurt drink, Airyan and Boza, a sweet and thick malt drink which was definitely an acquired taste.

Ani then brought us to a traditional doll craft house where locals could come to make one themselves or buy one.

Other crafts were also for sale aligning with the Easter theme as well as the Spring martenitsa bracelets (which Ani taught us how to make too!)

While we were there, Ani brought us through the history of the dresses and adornments worn by the Bulgarian women and men from the different regions within the country throughout the years.

We were lucky enough to actually get to see some ourselves at the local book market. Simultaneously, we were also able to enjoy some of their traditional music and singing.

While at the famous book market, we were given a brief history of the Cyrillic alphabet which originated in Bulgaria.

We then got a quick lesson on the sounds of the alphabet and had a go and writing our own names. 

Things got a lot sweeter as we entered the tea house which had its own several renditions of showcasing the lovely aroma of the Bulgarian rose.

A blend of dried rose petals along with other herbs were there for us to get a lovely whiff prior to tasting it for ourselves.

We enjoyed our rose tea which also came with a spoonful of sweet rose jam!

We then got a public dance lesson with Ani in the middle of the park. Equipped with her handy Bluetooth speaker, she blasted several folk tunes and taught us the steps. 

We danced in a circle, screamed when signalled to do so, and got numerous locals laughing at us from afar. Free entertainment for them, a hilarious experience for us.

And to end the tour, it was only appropriate to sip on some local rakia while getting a live singing performance by Ani herself.

It was such an immersive and fun experience of Bulgarian culture for the three hours and I absolutely recommend it! It was well worth the 22 levas (€11) especially because it included all the food and drink as well.

And while we are on that topic, no blog post would be complete without my list of food!

So... Where did I eat?

1. Happy Grill and Bar

A place with everything and anything to cater to all tastebuds.
Local dishes, mixed grills, pastas, risottos, seafood, vegetarian options, dessert, drinks, and more.

2. Hamachi-ni 

Delicious Japanese cuisine with high quality ingredients and reasonable prices.

The sashimi was to die for.

3. Shtastlivetsa 

A tastefully decorated venue with an assortment of delicious local dishes.
A great place to go if you want something slightly fancier or to celebrate something.

4. Tsentralni Market 
(Централни софийски хали)

A local market which sold all sorts of fresh produce, cooked meals, souvenirs, and more.
We bought loads of ready-made foods to share in the apartment such as grilled fish and chicken, spinach lasagna, tomato rice, and sauteed vegetables.

Also, as suggested by the local guide Niki, we had to get some delicious Bulgarian Easter sweet bread called Kozunak!

It had such a lovely fluffy texture with a hint of sweetness. It was to die for (we actually returned to the market for seconds). 

5. The View

As the name of the restaurant suggests, you get a pretty view of the city while enjoying your meal.

Although not every dish was amazing, the octopus carpaccio was divine.

Similarly, the octopus linguine was my absolute favourite. Washed down with a White Russian on the side with good company, life was good.

6. Street Vendors

Roasted chestnuts and corn in a cup drizzled with mayo, parmesan, and salt to name a few. 
Extremely satisfying on a slightly chilly day. 

7. The Apartment

Through the wooden doors and up the stairs was a cool apartment converted into a comfy and casual cafe. 

The rooms in the apartment were designed into different living room concepts which were great for lazing around while enjoying a cup of coffee, fresh juices, with an assortment of sweet and savoury munchies.

This trip to Sofia left me pleasantly and unexpectedly blown away. 
The rich culture, food, beautiful landscapes, and warmth from the locals made me want to stay so much longer. 

It was an amazing six days of relaxation and it will definitely not be my last trip to Bulgaria ;)