The start of my Bulgarian story began twenty years ago. It started with a dirt cheap budget saving airfare from Sydney to Greece. I was a happy teenager on my way to Party on the Greek Islands.
The cost was as cheap as it gets for a 30-hour flight from Sydney, Australia. But, in return, I was to stay in no man’s land – Sofia, Bulgaria for two days. I was not interested in churches and historic buildings. Don’t judge me; I was a teenager and, I just needed to get to the promised backpacker party scene on Santorini Island, Greece.
Isn’t that why us young backpackers travel? To Party round the world with people around the world.
My Bulgarian airline landed me safely in Sofia, Bulgaria. I was given a free transfer to my free hotel room. I was then left alone for two days. It was my first solo trip, and I was shy and an inexperienced traveller. I didn’t find anyone that spoke English. Not even the reception spoke any English. So, there was no one there to give me ideas on what to see or do. It was a time before internet and travel writing was rare. It may have even been before Lonely Planet wrote a guidebook on Bulgaria.
I decided I would be brave and ventured out to explore the city and see if I could find anything resembling a travel agency.
And what did I see and find? Endless streets of closed shops and no people to speak English with. No one to tell me where to go or what to see. No one to talk to.
I walked endless kilometres along a street full of staid communist era block buildings. I did not even find anywhere to eat except for a corner store selling salty bread. On my travels, I saw buildings I assumed were the town hall and parliamentary buildings. When night fell, everyone disappeared indoors.
And then I spotted it. A park full of young people gathered to meet their mates. Young people in post-communist Eastern Europe in the early 90s expressing themselves – punks, goths, emos, skins, metalheads. It was all on as 1000 young people gathered to talk, flirt, smoke cigarettes and discreetly snort petrol from a metal can.
But I remained the loner, the only person not speaking Bulgarian and no one with any English except for the universal language of a smile.
I quickly forgot about that park after I had moved on to the backpacker fueled Greek party islands. I then continued to declare Bulgaria a miserable, dull place where the only enjoyment came from a petrol can.
Yet in reflection, and with the new insight a return journey brings you, I now realise I judged harshly. All I recalled was the closed shops, the lack of communication, the lack of tourist infrastructure, the lack of bright lights and the rows upon rows of communist-era block buildings. When in fact the children of the future were rebelling against the past and welcoming the Western World with the Sex Pistols music blaring anarchy and singing songs of freedom.
Zoom in twenty years later and those kids are probably the ones running the fancy cafes in the main boulevard of Sofia.
Twenty years later I consider how it has changed. But I realise, it is a country that I have never actually been to before. And I have a newly developed country to explore.
I should add, I am no longer a teen and have developed an appreciation for churches and historical monuments that I did not care for in the past. The Aleksander Nevski Cathedral is one of the most beautiful and glorious churches of The Balkans. It is comparable in majesty to other Eastern European iconic churches.
The bright lights, the cosmopolitan shopping, the cafe culture, the fine dining and the historic buildings, Sofia has many attractions to offer the tourist. It is a laid-back city that is perfect for a weekend European getaway at only a small percentage of the price of other European countries.
With an efficient transport system & adequate English spoken by locals, Bulgaria is a safe and effortless place to travel.
I found myself surprised that I had such a fantastic weekend. I had wished I had stayed for more than 3 days. At least to have enough time to explore the many beautiful parks scattered across the city.
I read in my latest Lonely Planet Bulgaria that there is a skate park where Youth gather. So, I went to that park to reclaim my youth and to look for the visionaries of the future. But hark, since it’s winter, they were not there. Perhaps indoors playing PlayStation and Snapchatting.
Don’t Miss these Top things to do in Bulgaria –
Spend a few hours exploring the Parks and gardens.
Borisova gradina is the oldest park in Sofia. There are many impressive statues as a memorial to the past.
Visit the Vitosha Boulevard.
There’s a buzz on the Boulevard, and well-dressed Bulgarians are out shopping, dining and enjoying the nightlife in the city centre. There are quality cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating. And, on nearby streets, there are bars and clubs to dance away the night. Prices for food and drinks are very cheap too.
See the Church of St. George.
With its detailed medieval frescoes, this 4th-century redbrick rotunda is one of the most alluring buildings in Eastern Europe.
Marvel at the Sofia Ancient Serdica Archaeological Complex.
It’s extraordinary that these Roman ruins were only discovered in 2004 while excavating to build a new hotel. They have now been preserved and incorporated into the hotel where old meets new.
Visit churches, cathedrals and mosques.
Aleksander Nevski Cathedral is one of the worlds largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals. It is the most impressive building in all of Bulgaria.
If I had more time:-
I would take a day trip to the stunning UNESCO World Heritage-listed site – Rila monastery.-Tourista Sister
I would take the Free city tour and see 35 attractions in two hours.
I would indulge in the plethora of mineral springs in the surrounding countryside.
I would visit the many compelling art galleries and museums scattered across the city.
Editor’s Note –
This is the first story of a 3 part series on Bulgaria.
Stayed tuned in the next few weeks for-
Veliko Tarnovo, Ruins, Feasting & Winter Snow.