Seven Lakes and Scrumptious Sights – A Week in Sofia, Bulgaria
Sofia Bulgaria may seem like a random destination for European travels. I would agree. It does not have the glamorous reputation of some European cities like Rome or Paris. You can probably not name a single notable site or thing to see in the city (or the country for that matter). You rarely hear anything about it, or talk to anyone who has ever been or is ever planning on going. And the only person that you, if you’re anything like me, can name who is from Bulgaria is fictional Harry Potter quidditch seeker Viktor Krum. To us, however, that was part of the basis of its appeal.
I had been imparted with a general curiosity about the place after talking to my Uncle Pete. He has some family there and was telling me that my cousins, Molly and Caitlin, had planned to go during their European vacation, but hadn’t ended up making the bus. After he told me about it, I did a quick Google search, saw some pictures and read a few articles about how it was one of the cheapest European capitals and had a cool hike in the nearby mountain range, and tucked it into the back of my mind as a possible destination during the first leg of our journey, should we need it. Well, prior to my sister’s arrival in Rome, the other Temporary Nomads and I were looking for somewhere to go after Greece that wouldn’t be too expensive, as we expected to spend a bit more dough while Rikki was with us, and that had a cheap flight out of Athens on September 11. That’s when I suggested Sofia. With almost no convincing, especially when the hike was mentioned, we agreed on the mysterious city as our destination.
And with the decision came s trip that solidified Sofia Bulgaria as one of my favorite travel destinations of our European journey.
What We Did
Day 50 (9/11/16): We landed at the airport around midday and hopped on the ultra-clean subway system towards city center. We located our Airbnb, checked in, and headed out to get food. We found a restaurant called Samurai and enjoyed a delicious and awesomely affordable dinner. We spent the remainder of our evening strolling up and down the main pedestrian street in the city, Vitosha Boulevard.
Day 51 (9/12/16): Today we awoke late and joined in on a FREE food tour of Sofia, therefore giving ourselves over to several hours of wandering around taking in the sites and tasting the delicious traditional foods of the country. Afterwards, we hit up the grocery store to get supplies before making enough pork stew to last us the next three days.
Day 52 (9/13/16): A sicknesses had descended upon our group. The lack of sleep and excessive partying in Greece seemed to have taken its toll and all three of my travel companions ended up ill (I of course, with my superior immune system, was unfazed). Therefore, we spent today (and several others as you will read) relaxing and recuperating. The highlight of today’s activities was that Katie and I practiced doing the 1920’s finger waves hairstyle on each other while simultaneously binge watching Outlander. The boys were not impressed.
Day 53 (9/14/16): After being a bit lazier than normal our first few days in Sofia, we decided that today we would get up early, load ourselves up with excessive amounts of tissues, and head out to see the main historical sites of the city. We walked all around the city and saw the Sveta Petka Samardjiyska, Banya Bashi Mosque, Roman city ruins, Central Sofia Synagogue, central market (Tsentralni Hali), National Theater, Saint Nikolas Russian Church, Cathedral Saint Alexandar Nevski, National Art Gallery, Parliament, Soviet Army Monument, Sofia University, and several parks within the city limits. We also snapped some pics of us travelling down the city’s famous yellow brick roads.
Day 54 (9/15/16): Relaxing. Recuperating. Wine. Outlander.
Day 55 (9/16/16): We again awoke early, took the subway to the airport and picked up our rental car for the day. From there we drove out into the country towards the Seven Lakes Region of the RIla Mountains. Passing donkey-pulled carts, we made our way up the mountains to the chairlift that took us to the start of the hike. We arduously trekked to the peak to get the best view of the lakes for the rest of the day before heading back to the city for dinner at Happy’s in downtown. We then returned home to pack for our next destination.
Day 56 (9/17/16): Grudgingly, we said goodbye to our Airbnb, got one final cheap meal, and then headed to the airport for our flight to Paris.
What We Learned
- While here, take advantage of the free tours. Sofia is the only place we have gone, where the tours are completely free (don’t even allow tipping gat the end). With the tourism industry just starting to grow, the government is trying to entice further travel to the area by offering these types of complimentary services to tourists and travelers. We participated on the food tour. We got to try a traditional cheese-filled bread called banitsa, a fried dough covered in powdered sugar called mekitsi, a yogurt drink called Ayran, a chicken sandwich that enveloped the slow-food movement, several kinds of soft cheeses, and a couple of local wines. We also gained an acquaintance with bull-heart tomatoes, and how they led to the introduction of ABBA to the country despite being under Soviet censorship, and the shopska salad, which was developed by the government as a salute to the Bulgarian flag (red – tomatoes, green – salad greens, and white – shredded cheese). In addition to the food tour, they also offer city sites tours and a communist walking tour, in case you are interested.
- Sofia is a city of hipsters. No lie, I found the bulk of the city and its culture similar to that of Over-the-Rhine back home in Cincinnati. Everyone is trendy, boutique restaurants and cafes are king, and there is a happenin’ night-life scene. We felt a little out of place in our exercise pants and tank tops, whilst everyone else donned heels or boots, jeans, and stylish tops and jackets. However, unlike Over-the-Rhine, all that hip trendy food, clothes, and drinks are VERY affordable. We were able to eat out at a nice restaurant for approximately $15 for the two of us including cocktails and tip. Not too shabby!
- Helpful fact: while being ill was a downer for JANK, we discovered that in Bulgaria, you can get antibiotics over the counter without a prescription. Just in case you get a sinus infection next time you are travelling through the Balkan country.
- We learned while out on a stroll that Bulgarians love pizza. There were pizza-by-the-slice stands and shops fairly frequently and we could understand why. Their pizza is awesome: huge hot slices, medium thickness, smothered in cheese and herbs (YUM!). However, we also quickly noticed that they have one pizza habit unlike anywhere else I have seen….once they purchase their slice, they take it and cover it in ketchup, mustard, and/or mayonnaise. It is the weirdest thing. They have condiment stations outside every pizza place where you can squeeze on your own toppings, and almost everyone does it. When we asked our food tour guide about the practice, he mused that he thought the reason might have been that they didn’t really have pizza there until the 1990s, and when it did arrive, nobody was quite sure how they were supposed to eat and serve it. So, they treated it like they treated another street food common in the area: hot dogs.
- Our hike in the Rila Mountains was a tough, but extremely rewarding experience that anyone travelling to Sofia for more than a day or two should consider. Getting to the RIla Mountains from what we read can be difficult using public transportation. However, we had no issues by renting a car. Not to mention, the car rental prices are affordable (we paid $35 for the day) and the airport is easily accessible using the underground. Once we were in the area, we had some trouble finding the chairlift that takes you to the start of the hike (you can hike up from the very bottom but it will add an extra 3-4 hours). This is because the Panichiste Resort does not show up on google and the town of Panichiste is about 5-10 minutes from the lift itself. However, we were able to find another resort with an owner who could point us in the right direction. We paid for our tickets and began our hike with a 20-minute ride up the lift. You can see the first lake almost right away and the trail starts off with a steeper climb. However, it eventually levels off and as you walk across the ridge of the first hill, another lake becomes visible. There is a small downward bit and a longer flatter walk before you reach the base of the highest peak, which you much climb to see lakes five, six, and seven. We crashed by the forth lake for a bit before beginning up that way. After about two and a half to three hours of hiking, we reached the peak. The last part of the trail was difficult, and at some points you had to climb a bit with your hands and feet because the ground was not solid underneath you. The guide online rated this a moderately difficult trail. However, while I would agree if you are a seasoned hiker it could be moderate, simply given the shorter length of it, I would argue that for casual hikers in reasonably good shape, as we were, it is maybe more of a strenuous hike, simply because of the steepness and the loose rocks you had to navigate over, especially in the later parts of it. The forth and the sixth lake were the best, in my opinion, as both afford you the opportunity to relax on its banks or dip your feet in if you wish to. And if you pack a lunch as we did, you will have an amazing view for a picnic.
- Walking up out of the subway once we had arrived in central Sofia, we were floored by the site that greeted us. We were in the middle of a large, clean, modern park. There were mountains visible from the background. People were out in droves running, playing with their pets or kids. There was the start of a large pedestrian street at the end of the park lined with small shops and restaurants. It definitely did not look like a run-down, developing, post-communist era place some might think of when you picture eastern European countries like Bulgaria. I was extremely impressed. While the buildings and architecture were a bit older and dated looking in places, we found the whole city to be incredibly clean, and warm, and inviting. I was almost embarrassed for arriving with the lower expectations than I did. This city makes quite an amazing impression!
- While making our way down the mountain, Katie and I stopped at one of the higher lakes (number six, if I remember correctly) and decided to have a competition to see who could keep their feet in to the water the longest. The water was just slightly above freezing, even this time of year, but neither Katie no I wanted to lose. We sat there for fifteen or twenty minutes (as the boys dozed on the shore) before I finally conceded my defeat. In retrospect, that dip probably helped my feet from feeling too sore from the hike the next day. Bonus!
- Katie and I had a lot of bonding time this trip as the sickness that passed through the group caused the boys to hunker down in each of their respective rooms (or sick caves, as we called them) and watch movies or surf the internet for large portions of the day. So, what were we to do with our time? Drink wine! We found a new favorite wine brand at the grocery store that cost 75 U.S. cents each. This led to the consumption of 15 bottles over the course of seven days. Whoops…..