Bulgaria & Turkey, November 2001 Travelogue
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Wednesday, Nov. 14th, 2001

The ride to Sofia was about as rough as a train can get. The train came to a screeching stop about every 20 minutes. At the Greek-Bulgarian border the train stopped for 40 minutes on the Greek side and 45 minutes on the Bulg side, from about midnight to 1:40am we were sitting on the desolate border. Alexander, the Spanish guy, expressed concern about having his passport out of his hands for so long, but the Greek guy and I assured him we would get them back without a problem. We left the border, I locked the door and got some sleep.
About an hour before arriving dawn broke and my eyes were open. I was excited about what the exotic ex-soviet Bulgaria held in store.

The train arrived in Sofia at about 7:30am. I said goodbye to my travel friends and strolled out of the station. Before I got very far I was approached by the friendly but desperate Sachko. He was offering me a room and was anxious to have me read all about the reviews he was getting in a little hotel registration book he kept. I was actually happy to see him, getting a hotel could be a big hassle. I was interested in the price, which Sachko gave immediately in US dollars. Ten bucks a night for my own room with a shared bath. He assured me that a Japanese guy was already there, and went on and on about how great it was, but I was pretty much sold. I figured if it totally sucked, I could move the next day. On the way out of the station, we passed a panel of exchange rates for different currencies. I wanted to pin him down on how much the room was going to cost when I paid him in Bulgarian Lev, and he let me set it at 2.2 Lev per dollar. He led me out of the station, I tossed my backpack into his trunk and climbed into his car.

The first stop was at an atm. I lied and said that my card was in my bag so that he couldn't drive off with it. The ATM offered 5 quick-withdrawal amounts, 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 Bulgarian Lev. I chose the greatest of these, which was worth about US$23. Next we stopped at a government office for 3 minutes so he could deliver some hotel-related paperwork to the proper authorities. I hopped out and took a picture of his license plate. Did I mention I was nervous about getting robbed? Then we drove for about 15 minutes, which meant that I wasn't exactly in the middle of Sofia, but it was close enough by tram, Sachko assured me.

We arrived at the Hotel Horizon-T and immediately I liked my room. It had a little table and a desk and two single beds. I met Sachko's wife, who asked me if I was going back to sleep or perhaps wanted breakfast. I got breakfast, which turned out to be a pretty good feast with great coffee.

After breakfast she cleared my tray and gave me a little lesson on getting around in Sofia. Tram 5 & 19, buy your ticket first, watch for pick-pockets....that kind of thing. I asked her about laundry and she told me she would do it & that there was a per-item cost.

Laundry is one thing that I dread doing on the road, so this was good news for me.

Soon I was in the middle of Sofia, wandering around. The city had a fairly distinct central area defined by a few churches, government buildings and pedestrian underpasses. What Thessaloniki had offered in automotive and engine parts, Sofia had in Lingerie. Hundreds of shops. It was a shame they didn't have more auto-parts, because there were plenty of people stopped with their hoods open, trying to fix something.

I wandered around looking for a certain KFC which my guidebook said had an internet cafe next to it. Slowly I got myself oriented.

At about 11am I ran into Alexander, the Spanish guy from the train. He had an exciting story about hustlers at the train station offering to move his bags from the train for 10,000 Drachma ($25). He was mild-mannered but obviously annoyed at this attempt. We each had coffee and sat for a while discussing our early impressions of Sofia. He thought the people were unhappy, and I had to agree. We finished the coffee and Alexander picked up the tab, 80 cents. A guy could make a lot of friends in a country like that.

The day was beginning to get colder and wetter. I was wearing a sweater, but I needed some kind of waterproof shell, so I went to a street market (called the Ladies Market) and shopped for a light jacket. I didn't find one, and instead bought a heavy cotton shirt. A wind started to blow and just as I was bordering on miserable, I found the KFC and the internet cafe. I camped out there for a while, got some cheap chicken dinner and caught the tram home. It was early, around 6pm, but it was very cold outside and the rain was really coming down. I stopped in at a little market and got a couple of beers and a Fanta.

In my room, I didn't see any sign of my laundry. I read up on Sofia and tried writing a little, but I still fell asleep at 9 to the sound of stray dogs barking.

Breakfast in my room

The chilly streets of Sofia

skull of the wife of the grave keeper
poster for a theatre

tall sculpture with small figures

spring water bottle fillers

Alexander and I having coffee

Axing a bone for soup

One of thousands of lingerie shops

Freezing rain in the streets

a truck-loading ramp at the
Lion building, old place of National Museum

Thursday, Nov. 15th, 2001

I was awoken around midnight by what sounded like a fight between Sachico and his wife. They were yelling at each other on the floor below mine. Luckily I couldn't understand what they were saying or I would have been up for hours eavesdropping. I imagined it was was an argument about my laundry, and drifted off to sleep.

I was up early, showered and dressed by 8am. Unfortunately, I was dressed in the same thing as the day before, on account of my missing laundry. I took the tram to the center of town. I passed by a hotel with a digital temp/time display and it showed 1 degree. At least it wasn't raining. Every time the doors of the tram opened a blast of icy wind came in. I was wearing gloves and my orange jacket with a hood.

I had breakfast at a "Goodies" and then went immediately to the internet cafe for more coffee and email. It was about 80 cents an hour for access to the net. Next I went shopping and got myself a pair of $20 shoes. The woman at the shoe store had black hair and blue eyes, which is quite rare where I come from, but all over the place in Sofia. Overall, in fact, I would say that the women of Sofia are extraordinarily beautiful. I began to wonder if my charm could break through the language barrier.
Thursday was a day of walking around, taking photos. I went to the sculpture park, more outdoor markets and regular retail stores. I took 65 photos that day, slowly getting a feel for the layout of the town.

I went home for a stretch when it got dark, then I braved the cold night to try a bar. I went to an Irish place called "the Shamrock" but was bored stiff before I finished my first Guinness. The beer was 4.5 lev, and the waiter just kept the change from my 5. I was annoyed at first, but got over it when I realized it was only about 21 US cents.

I walked around half-frozen, looking for excitement. Just as I was about to give up I found a little gem: a pirate ship tavern! There was a pirate welcoming me into this ship's hull-shaped 2-story interior. I practically ran inside.

The walls were pine and there were fish tanks along one wall. It was really cool, but it made me homesick for the piratey antics of Daniel and Mike. I had one beer and caught the tram home.

I didn't see Sachko or his wife at all that day. I wondered what was going on...Ok, actually I just wanted my laundry.

former Communist party building

a street near the center of Sofia

Sculpture in the Sofia city garden

Harry Potter opening gala

soviet-era Trabant and cranes

farmer's mart on Graf Ignatiev

Ivan Vazov National Academic Theatre

ah, MakgoHavgc!, just like home!

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Read my other travelogues: Minneapolis 2001 | Burning Man 2001 | Europe 1999 | Costa Rica 2000

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