Monday, 17 December 2012
Day 254 – Sandwiches, Sashimi and Snow. (Bulgaria)
After our satisfyingly un-corrupt border crossing we camped in the cold for one night before arriving in Bulgaria’s capital city of Sofia, where we were most impressed by the friendliness of Bulgarians. While we were waiting to hear from our Couch Surfing host we spotted our first Subway in many many months, so decided to indulge ourselves in a Sub of the Day. As we parked though, a group of old men sitting at the front of a coffee shop greeted us excitedly and invited us to join them for a cup of coffee. They were most impressed by the stickers from all the countries we’ve visited on our car (though not overly interested in why we have them, more so in the physical stickers themselves) and we struggled through the language barrier to chat with them for the duration of a cup of coffee. We excused ourselves to have our Subway lunch and couldn’t believe it when we received the best Subway service any of us have ever experienced. This sandwich artist’s understanding of the menu was paramount, his demeanour was utterly professional, yet the epitome of friendliness, and his cheese tessellation was perfect. With still a bit of time to spare before meeting our host we found an op-shop where we were most surprised to find that prices weren’t per item, but by weight. That was certainly a first for me!
We met our host at his apartment and he took us on an excellent tour of Sofia’s night life. Our first stop was the opening of a tiny bar, with ceilings so low that our slightly-taller-than-average host couldn’t stand up straight and packed so full that we had to spend most of our time on the pavement. They were giving away local beers to celebrate/promote the opening though and we got to meet most of Bulgaria’s mountaineering community. Our next stop was another bar’s opening, but this one was more like a trendy cafe decorated with records and bookshelves and serving gluhwein as their promotional drink. It ticked over midnight while we were there so seeing it was Ben’s birthday the following day, we all sang happy birthday before going to the third and final destination of the evening.
Sofia is about 600m above sea level and is surrounded by mountains reaching over 2,000m, which in winter are flocked to by snow boarders, skiers and ice-climbers, and in summer by hikers and rock-climbers. The next event in our evening’s schedule was about 1,900m up, past the snow line, at a ski resort chalet with Bulgaria’s free riding community. The road leading up the mountain is a very well maintained cobble-stone road, comfortably wide with stunning views over the city, and reaching snow for the first time on this trip we were very excited.
The following day, which was Ben’s birthday, we headed out to explore Sofia. Although the night life exists, and the surrounding mountains are very beautiful, Sofia is not an overly exciting or pretty city (though it is a very driving friendly city). Our first stop was the war museum which sports an extensive selection of tanks, planes, trucks and guns. From there we circled the city, noting from the car the Sofia statue which honours Sofia’s namesake, Saint Sofia, and the Communist Building, which is a building that was built under Communism. We actually quite enjoyed our quick stop at the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral which is a very beautiful church that has not been tarnished at all by tourism. The thermal springs located right in the heart of the city were particularly interesting though. There were many taps lined up throughout a square, packed with men and women – mainly old, a few middle aged – each carrying half a dozen or more 10L and 20L containers. Bulgarian tap water is widely accepted as undrinkable, so although bottled water is relatively cheap, a lot of people – mainly older – cannot afford to purchase it.
After this extensive tour of Sofia, we used Ben’s birthday as an excuse to treat ourselves to lunch at Happy Sushi, a local chain of Japanese restaurants. The food was very nice and although it wasn’t perfectly true to Japanese, it wasn’t far off. I can’t pretend it’s not odd though to watch chefs in a Japanese style open kitchen, kitted out in Japanese chefs’ garb and producing dainty platters of sashimi, yet all tall, dark and quite clearly Bulgarian, yelling at each other in the deep, harsh tones of the Bulgarian language.
Our plan for the next day was to drive up the mountain in the daylight, take in the view and play in the snow. We needn’t have bothered though as the clouds were so low we had barely enough visibility to see the road, let alone the view over the valley. Playing in the snow was fun and it started to snow while we were up there, but we didn’t realise at the time that we needn’t have bothered with that either. As we descended back to Sofia, we kept wondering how far down the snow line was. Surely it had only been a couple of hundred metres from the top on the way up. But it was snowing now, quite heavily actually, and it just kept going even as we approached the city. When we got back to the outskirts we realised it was now snowing there too and the whole city was covered. Suddenly Sofia was much prettier than we’d previously realised. To their credit though, the Bulgarian drivers became very cautious and sensible as soon as the roads became slippery and treacherous.
That evening we went with our host to an interactive stand up comedy show. Members of the audience get up and tell a story – any story at all – in Bulgarian and then the two hosts translate it between them into English. Everyone else seemed to think it was the most outrageously hilarious thing ever, but we just didn’t get it at all. It was only afterwards that we discovered it was because neither the Bulgarian nor the English is especially funny – the hilarity is in the translation. As every single Bulgarian (except our coffee drinking friends from our first day) speaks perfect English, they can spin clever puns and make sneaky comparisons that only work if you completely understand both languages. So that was kind of lost on us, but never mind, it was still quite an experience.