The day began very early; my alarm was set for 4 AM to get up, get breakfasted and get to the train station for the first train of the day to Stansted Airport. There, I met my travelling co-conspirators: Annalise, Jacqueline, Krittika and Paul. We purchased our tickets and piled on to the train with all of the other early risers.
The train took us directly to the airport. Being so early, we were able to pass through the security line relatively quickly, and soon enough we found ourselves sitting around the many shops of the Stansted departure lounge. We were all still very tired and a little grouchy at this point, so when the gate announcement came through, we were eager to get on board the plane, which we were able to do with little trouble.
Because Paul had bought his tickets separately, he sat further down the plane, while the rest of us sat across a row near the front. Krittika and Annalise took the opportunity to catch up on a little sleep (both had had late nights before their early mornings) as we jetted across the European continent.
Our arrival in Sofia was smooth, and we departed the plane into a pair of busses. The terminal itself seemed inexorably frozen in time. The floor was an uneven bubbled linoleum, the walls were musty and yellow right through from the immigration checkpoint to the cramped and old arrivals hall. There, we were constantly touted for a taxi ride to the city while we collected ourselves in a new country. We found our way onto a shuttle bus which took us around to the newer departures terminal, from which the trains to the centre of town would depart. The bus ride seemed to take us through an odd array of airport backstreets, but we soon enough found ourselves on the somewhat modern railway platforms.
The train into town was mostly underground, but when it was above ground it seemed to be taking us through a Super Mario pipe. Eventually, we arrived at Сердика, the centre-most station in Sofia. Once above ground, we oriented ourselves and walked towards our hostel. This was our first experience of the streets of Sofia. Everything had a slight yellow tinge, and the former Socialist architecture really stood out. We were following Krittika, who had the directions to the hostel. When we eventually found it, we had to go along an alleyway down a side street and climb a set of stairs until we reached the reception. From there, we lounged around on the common room sofas while we checked in. Our room was simple; it had the requisite 5 beds and a balcony. We off-loaded our belongings, figured out how to lock up all of our things and headed out to explore the city.
Our first destination was to have some lunch; due to the early flight a number of us had missed breakfast. Up the street there was a well-reputed BBQ grill restaurant which we dutifully filed into and sat in a table in the corner. Armed with an English menu, I ordered some Bulgarian sausages, others ordered some Bulgarian kebapche. There were some well seasoned chips, but the sausages was a good mix of spicy and meaty, especially when combined with the tomato sauce provided. I ended up having both of my sausages and one of Krittika’s kebapches.
From there, we walked further up the road to see the Cathedral Alexandar Nevski, an early 20th century marble large domed Orthodox cathedral. The roof ceiling was cavernous, reaching up to an intricate portrait of God with an oversized white handlebar moustache. From there, we slowly wandered back through a nearby park to reach the city gardens, a large open space with a fountain and hundreds of people milling about. We sat by the fountain for a while and listened to an old jazz band busking nearby, complete with accordion.
It was now mid-afternoon, and our stomachs had started to grumble a little again, so we went to a cafe that Krittika had read about that involved walking some way along a large pedestrian mall. This meant walking past a large number of orange-wearing Dutch football fans, who were in the city for their team’s World Cup Qualifier against Bulgaria. Eventually, we found the café, which was down a narrow alleyway into a beautiful garden with seating all through both floors and outside. We found seats and picked out cakes to eat through, most of us opting for very rich chocolate cakes.
By six o’clock, we walked back to the Palace of Justice to join a Free Sofia Tour walking tour. There were a rather large number of people for a Saturday evening, and only two tour guides, so we divided into two groups and began walking around the city. We were lead by Viki, a student turned tour guide who took us past a number of sites from Roman, Medieval and Socialist Sofia telling us stories of how the city came to be, and about the Bulgarian way of life (which often involved stories of lateness and procrastination, or of corrupt politicians). In our walk, made our way past numerous churches, mosques, synagogues and communist buildings, each of which had its own story. We finished up at the church at which we had started the day, and so made our way back to the hostel for a brief time.
It was late, and so (prompted by the announcement that the hostel would be turning its lights of for Earth Hour) we walked out to a Krittika-selected bar a short walk away. This was another venue down a dark alleyway, this time to a dimly lit wooden door. We walked inside to found ourselves in a candle-lit bar that seemed to be lifted from the medieval times (or at least what I would imagine a medieval bar to be). There was a narrow mezzanine where we sat down, with a narrow staircase up to the storage in the loft. The chairs and table were short, but the atmosphere was like nothing I had seen before. We had some drinks (Jacqueline and Krittika trying out the local beer) and chatted and soaked in the strange surroundings.
Eventually, we made our way back to the hostel, stopping briefly at a restaurant to test if we were still hungry, but we decided we weren’t. We climbed into bed, many many hours after we had woken up that morning, for a long awaited sleep.