The bus lurched into Sofia amidst a storm that might rival armageddon. The first taste of Bulgaria, and hopefully not an omen of things to come.
After weaving in and out of the scorching heat of a Greek spring, we headed north through tiny villages. Worn stone cottages with trellises draped in vines dotted across the scenery. I was regaling my travelling companion with unusual and often hilarious Wikipedia facts about Bulgaria, a country we’d only very recently decide to venture into, and knew almost exactly nothing about. As we grew closer the skies grew darker, an ominous welcome to our destination.
Arriving into Sofia, Bulgaria
Daggers of lightning hit the ground and thunder rattled the buildings. We splashed through puddles from our bus to where we thought our hostel might be. It was hard to know for sure as Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet. Not that it would’ve made much difference, none of the buildings had street numbers anyhow. I had already come to regret abandoning my raincoat back in Northern Greece.
“Bulgaria, I reflected as I walked back to the hotel, isn’t a country; it’s a near-death experience” – Bill Bryson, neither here nor there
Sofia is a city of enormous history, dating back nearly 7000 years. It has been a part of many empires ranging from the Roman to the Ottoman. It was once destroyed by the Huns, and lay in ruins before being resurrected once again. The city has architecture and culture from all the many who’ve brushed up against it. The history is so rich here that you can find Stalinist Gothic public buildings next to 14th-century ruins. Remains dating to 6000- 5500 BC, sidle with Neo-Gothic architecture, Baroque Revival architecture, and even Russian churches. Sofia is home to St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world. Even the language is significant, with the early Cyrillic alphabet developed right here in the First Bulgarian Empire during the 9th century.
Aside from learning that we were living in an undesirable part of town, filled with abandoned buildings and 24-hour liquor stores, the first week spent in Sofia was a pleasant daydream. Days involved devouring fresh berries, exploring the open-air book market, and catching up on sleep. Walking away from three months of refugee camp work had left me weary, needing a space to reconcile everything that had happened. This was the perfect retreat.
Blossoms, Book Markets & Springtime Delights
In the right light, Sofia is gorgeous. Sun-drenched boulevards looking out to Mount Vitosha, and antique markets peddling old war medals and violins in front of grand basilicas. I was enamoured by the spring tulips and strawberry vendors. Pleased with the cheap markets laden with fish, meats, cheeses, and produce, and the few local people I met along the way were kind, friendly, and helpful.
Yet, Sofia itself never quite captivated me in the way I had hoped it might. The tourist information centre doubled as a small library, where the membership fee was to donate at least three books, had charmed me. As had Bulgaria’s penchant for an extraordinary number of fountains. But too many signs of a difficult past and a certain hostility of the local people left this capital city falling flat when mixed with my current state of mind.
My friend left Sofia after a week to pursue adventures in Thailand. Going with her was tempting, but I was pulled more to lay low in rural Eastern Europe and get back on top of my writing. I daydreamed of grassy hills, yoga and fresh cherries off the trees. A quiet spot to complete my book over the coming weeks. Dissolving into northern Bulgaria for a few months, coming up refreshed, revived. Emerging from my retreat speaking Bulgarian with that attractive Eastern European accent. So, I opted to stay on, try my hand at learning the language, and explore further this country that piqued my curiosities.
Heading North: Veliko Tarnovo
The scenic highlight of my time was Veliko Tarnovo, a contender for the most beautiful city in Bulgaria. Red-roofed houses teeter down the banks of a sloping river like picturesque tiles. Students from the local fine arts school loll about in the sunshine, producing oil impressions whilst everybody strolls around in an upbeat mood. Veliko Tarnovo could pass for one of those post-card perfect Italian towns you always see on ‘20 of the most beautiful places in Europe’ lists. Laden with picture perfect cobbled streets, stunning rivers, and local eateries to pass the day with shopska salad under the shade of overhanging grapevines.
Bulgarians culture mandates doing the opposite of whatever I have recently become accustomed to. Where Greeks use the term ‘nae’ to mean yes, now it means no. Most cultures I have become used to nod their heads up and down to agree, Bulgarians shake from left to right. I had lost track and continued to muddle my way oblivious to what anybody meant.
The Quiet Life in Rural Bulgaria
I settled into a daily routine with an English couple 45 minutes out of town. My days consisted of pulling weeds in the sun and painting the insides of a house during the rain. I’d wake up early and jog to the top of a nearby hill, taking in the sunrise and filling my lungs with fresh air. I was far away from sight nor sound of any other human being. In the evenings and weekends, I would chip away at my own manuscript, reliving the past three months of heartbreak in refugee camps.
This lifestyle suited me well for a limited time, and in some moments I imagined my return to Bulgaria. Daydreaming of buying a cheap farmhouse to renovate and live out my days here. But, I grew frustrated. Living in a remote village with a British couple left me no real exposure to Bulgarian people, culture, language or food. It soon became time, after two weeks, for me to move on and begin a search for the real Bulgaria.