When we departed the states nine months prior, Bulgaria was not part of our travel plans, not even a bleep on our radar. But what a wonderful spontaneous decision it turned out to be. From Portugal we were to go to England for three months of pet sitting in various locales to save some funds for our push into Africa later in the year. But just short of heading to the U.K. our first pet sit canceled! Even though the dollar exchange rate against the pound was the best in decades, it wasn’t favorable enough for an extended stay. So, we needed a plan B immediately. It was just the beginning of Spring and we had been spoiled by the pleasant weather in Portugal, so that eliminated going North. After a couple of quick online searches for weather conditions in various cities and inexpensive flights out of Lisbon, bang – we chose Sofia! The city was a magnificent surprise with its cosmopolitan vibe and café scene along pedestrian only Vitosha Boulevard. And hundreds of thousands of yellow tulips, planted in the city parks, were blossoming!Sunny days meant coffee on our balcony and a direct line of sight into the baklava bakery on the corner, across the street. The calories accrued from the sweet creations purchased from that den of temptation were only kept in check by long walks throughout the city. Exploring the neighborhoods surrounding our apartment, we quickly found delightful, small restaurants like Colibri Kitchen, Edgy Veggy, and Made in Home, which offered new interpretations of Bulgarian classics, while Moma Bulgarian served authentic dinners. Several gourmet food shops, like Bread and Cheese for Friends and Sun Moon Store, specializing in Bulgarian made products, were also nearby as was a butcher’s shop and innumerable bakeries, each with different offerings. (But for the whole week before Orthodox Easter all they baked was Kozunak, an incredibly delicious, rich and fragrant type of Stollen.)
At the Chili Hills Farm Store we found a line of Balkan Hot Sauces created from fifty different types of chili peppers collected from around the world, but locally grown in the Vitosha Mountains. Farther afield we’d walk across town to Sofia’s Central Market Hall for prepared foods to take-away or to the Lidl supermarket for basics. Sofia as it turned out was a foodie’s haven!
In the mornings we would arbitrarily wander about the city, continuing our tradition of “walk a bit then café – walk a little more….” or pick a destination in a far-off area, determined to immerse ourselves into Sofia’s life and explore every quadrant of the city. These walks revealed off-the-beaten-track neighborhoods, reminiscent of Paris or London, full of architectural gems built during the Bulgarian Renaissance.
Bulgarian culture re-asserted itself and blossomed during this short-lived renaissance which coincided with the country’s sixty-seven-years of freedom between the end of Ottoman occupation in 1878 and the beginning of communist rule in 1945.
Many other neighborhoods reflected the brutal designs of communist block housing which were brightened only by some colorful street art. Knowledge of the city’s layout often led to frustrating experiences with taxi drivers who were intent on building their fares by taking us on roundabout routes. Weekends were especially rewarding when it was more likely we’d come across a street market or dance class in a park.
Intense chess matches were played out on park benches and always drew an audience of curious onlookers. Pensioners playing cards was also a daily ritual in the parks.
Most afternoons we headed over to Vitosha Boulevard to sit at a café and people-watch, or walked along the rows of fountains, surrounded by yellow tulips, in front of the National Palace of Culture, with a still snowcapped Vitosha Mountain rising behind it.
The cost of living in Bulgaria was very favorable with most items in the bakeries costing just one dollar and a nice dinner for two with wine, dessert and coffee costing under $40.00. A visit to a local dentist, recommended by our Airbnb host, to have a cavity filled cost $20.00. The x-ray needed cost $5.00 from a different facility around the corner. Our lovely, large one-bedroom apartment with living room, dining table and small balcony, just two blocks away from the popular pedestrian mall, cost less than $800.00 for the month. (We found it amusing that the two-burner electric cook top was kept in a drawer in the kitchen, but we made it work for us.) A 90¢ USD subway fare got us to the airport for our $10.00 per day car rental, with unlimited miles, for our road trips. There were some oddities though.
Cut flowers were extremely expensive, so much so, that they we sold by the individual stem. In many grocery stores butter was so highly priced it had those plastic anti-theft tags attached to it.
We enjoyed our time in Sofia and found it to be a very interesting and diverse city, full of history. And it was a great low budget destination that kept us fully engaged for a month. Bulgaria should be on everyone’s radar as a place to head for a fascinating experience.
Till next time, Craig & Donna