The Lonely Planet says that Sofia's best feature is having a "pet mountain". This did not seem to be a ringing endorsement. We had heard nothing else about the city to inspire us, and we had just come from the rather disappointing Skopje, so we arrived in Sofia with low expectations. Then the streets were so narrow we had to go backwards and forwards to get around corners. It was therefore a pleasant surprise that we loved Sofia and found it a place that we can easily imagine re-visiting (apparently the skiing in Bulgaria is good and cheap...).
Sofia is a bit light-on for major, "worth a trip" attractions (a recurring theme in Eastern European capitals). It is however a very pleasant city with extravagant 19th century architecture dominant, lots of parks, a bustling pedestrianised centre, a few worthwhile churches and fantastic places to eat and drink.
The most impressive building in Sofia is the Aleksander Nevski Orthodox Church. It has a massive, bright gold dome that you see from all around the place. Up closer, it is one of those buildings on which you see some new feature (and want to take another photo) every time you move a few metres. Inside, the massive dome positively gapes above you in the semi-darkness.
There were a couple of other interesting churches: Sveta Sofia Church - a really ancient church (5th C) and the namesake of the city, doing well to be around at all after all the earthquakes and wars its survived; and Sveta Nedelya Cathedral - nice to look at but most notable because we visited during an Orthodox mass which was very moving, with the incense and the chanting.
We stayed in a room in a well-renovated apartment in a very ordinary looking apartment block. The apartment is run by the "Art Hostel". Luckily we were not in the hostel, as it would have been far too bohemian and cool for us. We had a great rooftop terrace with a view across the rooftops of Sofia. Perfect for an afternoon beer.
Eating in Sofia was a joy, especially after not managing one decent meal in Macedonia other than a spanakopita (? one of those Greek spinach and cheese pastry things) for breakfast one day. We generally avoid eating at the same place more than once, but we liked "Background" off Ulica Vitosha so much that we had lunch and dinner there. The food was great - international dishes that seemed to have been devised and cooked by a chef, rather than a cook. The prices were better than reasonable - about A$7.50 for an expensive main. The service was good - ordering wine involved a range of bottles being brought to the table to be explained. The restaurant was well presented, and just around the corner from our apartment. All in all, a great find. There was an awesome looking Moet & Chandon champagne bar between the apartment and the restaurant, but we were too hungry on the way out and too full on the way back. Next time.
This monastery is a couple of hours south of Sofia and is, in our opinion, the most spectacular site in Bulgaria. We had somehow missed seeing any photos of it, so it was a big surprise. The monastery is located in a valley, on a creek, with soaring mountains all around. The non-church part of the monastery (the dorms, for want of a better word), which form the walls, are three-storeys high with picturesque balconies. The church itself is covered in frescoes inside and out. It is amazing to see so much work, so many stories (the frescoes told the stories of the Bible for a population that was largely illiterate), in such a small place. There were tourists galore (as expected) and a good range of postcard sellers, restaurants, souvenir stores...
Rila National Park - Sedemte Ezera (Seven Lakes)
We did an overnight walk from Rila Monastery into the Rila National Park and the Sedemte Ezera (Seven Lakes). The walk started badly: we took the wrong path from the carpark (always the hardest part of a walk - locating the start) and decided to go cross-country to the right track rather than backtracking. It was as steep an uphill as possible without a ladder and there was a lot of all-fours scrambling required. AG dislodged a football-sized rock that hit AS, 50m down the hillside. Oops. Then AG scrambled through a whole patch of nettles, and AS followed. We have a newfound respect for nettles, now that we've learnt that their stings can keep you awake at night and hurt and itch for 3-4 days.
Once we got on the right track, it was a spectacular but incredibly steep walk following a spur onto the main ridge in the Rila Mountains and then following the spur along to the Sedemte Ezera. The views back down to the monastery were impressive, and then we arrived at the lakes. They say there are 7, but that is just one patch of them. They were everywhere: perched lakes linked by waterfalls, plains with lakes dotted all over, and then there were the Seven Lakes. The Seven Lakes cover a massive area, mostly at more or less the same level (at a bit above 2,000m) but with some lakes higher and, even in mid-July, largely covered by ice and sporting large snowdrifts.
That night we had one of our best campsites yet, between two lakes with absolute grandstand views. We had decided that huts are for others unless the weather is foul or we have the hut to ourselves. Neither of those circumstances applied, so we camped.
There were lots of locals around, all staying in (the over-abundant) huts in big groups of at least 8 (the maximum number recommended by the Minimum Impact Bushwalking code in Australia) and making incredibly slow progress. We were particularly impressed by the woman preparing for the day with a beer for breakfast as we walked past a hut in the morning.
On our second day we walked amongst the Seven Lakes, circled back around them and took a much longer, less steep route back to the monastery. The lakes were just as impressive from all the different angles we tried, and each new ridge revealed even more lakes. As we regained the ridge the cloud started billowing up from the lakes and soon we lost all visibility. While we were not actually in it, the cloud was quite atmospheric, although an approaching thunderstorm kept us moving.
Plovdiv is a town with a good mix of Roman ruins, fresco-filled churches, tempting pottery stalls, old ladies making point lace and 19th century chocolate box architecture lining a big, cafe-packed pedestrian area. It has an old town with plenty of trees (quite unusual for the cramped older areas of towns), cobbled streets, stone walls and "Bulgarian revival (late 19th C) architecture" - places with second floors overhanging so far they almost touch across the street, and features like architraves painted on in bright colours. Very fairytale-like.
We visited one house in Plovdiv notable for its revival architecture - a place with a magnificent, oval-shaped, house-width foyer. Lots of dark wood panelling but plenty of windows so it was not dingy. The traditional costumes on display were amazing but did not look particularly comfortable.
We stayed at the campground on the edge of town. We would not recommend it particularly unless you, like us, had a need to unpack and repack your entire car in order to find various misplaced items and prepare for 2 weeks of walking. Lonely Planet is not even that generous and it probably says something that we had no company other than mosquitoes.
The highlight of Plovdiv was probably sitting in a cafe watching a wedding in the well-preserved Roman amphitheatre. Terribly tacky music but everyone involved seemed to have a good time and you can't really beat Roman ruins for a romantic wedding location (although the uninvited audience might be a little off-putting).
Koprivshtitsa is a village of Bulgarian revival houses. It is an exceptionally intact collection and the museum houses that are open for visits are interesting, although we would not concur with a previous visitor's guestbook comment of "worth coming from Conneticut". In fact, don't tell, but the news that half of the museum houses included on our super-ticket were closed (because of it being Monday) was a relief.
The village is located in a picturesque valley and is very attractive, although we got the feeling that it was suffering from population decline. This to us was an interesting demonstration of the difference between Bulgaria and countries like Australia: at less than 2 hours from the capital, a place like Koprivshitsa in Australia is Daylesford or Mount Tamborine, not dying a slow death from loss of population.
Another photo paradise. This place is just so picturesque. The town is on the steep side of an S-shaped gorge with forest reaching "inside" the S and a massive castle at one end. The castle itself was a bit of a disappointment - there is not as much there as we had expected - but it was a nice place to be.
To Ruse and...in Ruse
We set out from Veliko Tarnavo heading straight to Bucharest, Romania. Then AG got the passports out for the border crossing and realised that her Romanian visa did not start until the next day. Oops. At least we realised before we handed the passport over to the border police and in time to make new plans.
So it was a detour off to visit the Ivano Rock Churches (they're UNESCO World Heritage listed, we really should have been going anyway...) and another monastery along the way. The rock churches were actually quite impressive - churches carved into rock and covered in frescoes. We had a nice walk around too, picking plums, mulberries, raspberries and blackberries that were growing wild along the path.
We spent the night in Ruse at another dodgy but adequate campground. We just ignored the fact that there were shooting targets up behind our tent.
We expected Ruse to be a border town that you would visit only if you are stuck there waiting for your visa to become valid. We were pleasantly surprised. It was a very pleasant place, full of people, with lovely buildings everywhere you looked. It also had the world's friendliest tourist information office and the Danube, where we sat and ate yummy little Danube fishies with beer.
Overall, Bulgaria was a nice surprise. It is a beautiful, varied country with a lively capital. The people are friendly. It is cheap. The language is not as hard as it seemed - you get the hang of Cyrillic fairly fast, and then you realise that most of it is similar to Serbo-Croatian. Admittedly, our Serbo-Croatian is pretty weak, but at least we can do numbers, hello, please and thank you.
On the downside, a lot of the roads are awful, with deep potholes in unexpected places. And don't ever, ever order a cappuccino: although they do fantastic espresso everywhere, they don't seem to be able to do milk, and cappuccino is out of a packet and sickly.
Perhaps for us the most interesting aspect of Bulgaria was learning more about the Turks (the Ottoman Empire) in the Balkans and the pre-WW1 Balkans wars. There is a monument to something or other every kilometre or so in Bulgaria. At first we attributed these to Soviet/communist influences - every communist country we've been to has had an over-abundance of statues commemorating communist leaders. However, while many of the statues are in fact communism-related, many (including the most significant) commemorate the role of Russia in releasing Bulgaria from the Ottoman "yoke" (this is the word used without fail in English translations), leading to Bulgarian independence in the late 19th century. Then we read about Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Greece fighting the Ottomans together. Then we started to understand why they always say that this region is always at war.
Bulgaria is (along with Romania) negotiating for EU entry in the short-term (2007):
We cannot imagine it. Acknowledging our complete lack of expertise on the topic, it seems to us that, if countries like Bulgaria become part of the EU, the nature of the EU itself will change. This is not "EU Europe". But at least Australians won't need a visa for Romania any more!