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Back to Sofia - Dave arrives for Christmas

Sofia


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Dave arrived today at Sofia Airport, but not until 23.50 so I had quite a few hours to myself in Sofia before then. My bus journey from Veliko Tarnovo was uneventful and I arrived at Hostel Mostel mid-afternoon.

On my walk from the bus station to the hostel I suddenly heard lots of very loud twittering and chirping on my right hand side; I turned round and saw a bushy tree the same height as me, filled with sparrows! I stepped up right next to them and none of them flinched or flew away. It reminded me of when Mum visited in October and said that the sparrows reminded her of how common they used to be in London forty or fifty years ago.

It looked like a really good place - before I was taken to my room I had time to send a quick email on one of the free computers and take note of the free pool table! The private rooms were in a separate building three minutes away from the main hostel; the room was excellent and I
liked the common room and kitchen.

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Shortly afterwards I went out to do some shopping. I admired the clearest view of the mountains yet, walked to the fruit & vegetable market to look for brussel sprouts (unsuccessfully - I've heard they they only appear on sale in Bulgaria for a couple of days per year), visited one or two shops and when my legs got tired I sat down in Sveta Nedelya Cathedral for a bit. There was a service going on; a group of people were standing in the middle, flanked by six poinsettia arrangements. Choral music filled the cathedral, but I couldn't see any choir anywhere so I assumed that was through a sound system. I bought and lit a beeswax candle for Dad.

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On my walk around Sofia I noticed several streetsellers selling branches of fir tree, branches from another type of tree (which I think it traditionally brought inside the house at Christmas in Bulgaria) and other branches which had ribbons, stringed popcorn, (I think) sheep's wool, and other decorations attached. I think this last type of branch are traditionally carried by children as they go carol singing from house to house from midnight on Christmas morning onwards.

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I got a free dinner at eight o'clock - pasta with tomato sauce and salad. As I was eating, I couldn't help but overhear the conversation two guys sitting near me were having. I listened, puzzled, because it sounded similar to Spanish but also different. I was just pondering whether to ask them where they were from, when another girl walked up to them and asked 'de dondé eres?' (Where are you from? in Spanish). They replied 'Chile!'. I nearly laughed - when I was in Ecuador, every time I asked the students which Spanish accents they liked the most and least, they always said that they found Chileans very difficult to understand. Now I can see why! It sounded very different to Ecuadorian Spanish.

I took the bus to the airport terminal late at night, at quarter past eleven. Somehow I ended up getting a free journey, because although I checked with the driver if it was going to the airport or not he never asked me for the fare (like the girl at the hostel reception said he would) and there were no conductors or machines to give money to. On the way there I saw other people get on and then get off again later without having paid anyone anything, but the driver never said anything, so I just got off at the terminal and hoped for the best.

It was amazing to see Dave again, as you can imagine. Thankfully the OK-Supertrans taxi service desk was still open, so we took one of their taxis to the hostel.

Posted by 3Traveller 05:15 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged mountains market airport spanish cathedral christmas hostel buses dad sofia bulgaria mum orthodox_church traditional_customs Comments (0)

National Revival Day

Sofia


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The first place I went to contrasted greatly to the traditional Bulgarian Orthodox church interior and icons I'd seen the day before; the Monument to the Soviet Army, which was built in 1954. Unsurprisingly, it looked very uncared-for, with some graffiti about and some grass growing between many of the paving stones. I stood about for a while, picturing parades that may well have taken place there. Rather surreally, there was a sculpture of a giant spoon next to it.

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After that I walked back past the fruit & vegetable market, which was still setting up when I'd come past before.

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I had to get a photo of one of the stalls because for a while I couldn't work out what was on it. I'm still not entirely sure what they were but I think they could have been halves of extremely large hollowed-out squashes that had been lightly grilled on a little grillstand next to the main stall.

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Next to the market I bought a 'kashkavalka' from a typical Bulgarian bakery where the products are displayed in the glass window, you say what you want and the assistant passes it through a hatch. Kashkavalki are spiral rolls with melted kashkaval, a type of yellow cheese, on top. That kashkavalka was simply the best cheesy roll I've ever had.

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From the bakery I walked to Sveti Nedelya church to take some photos. As I stood by the side of the church, which is raised up some steps, a rather surreal incident happened where Charlie Chaplin tried to persuade me to come to his café...

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After this exchange I went inside the church for another look-around. It was quite crowded due to it being a public holiday (National Revival Day). There was a security guard inside. I sat down for a while on a seat at one side and watched a blessing of bread and wine ceremony unfold. First of all a priest and a man holding a large, lit candle walked anticlockwise around a small altar table with some bread and a bottle of wine on it. The priest was chanting and swinging incense as he went. While they were doing that, a small semicircle of people gathered in front of a central altar table, which itself was directly in front of a very dark, carved wooden table with icons on it. This table also had bread and wine on it and after the priest had finished with the first table, he processed around this one as well, chanting and swinging incense once more.

Just as that happened, a woman came up to me and the couple of other people sitting down and gave us each a chocolate biscuit. The others ate theirs straight away, so I did too - it turned out to have jam inside. As I finished eating, the priest chanted to the the semicircle from a Bible; he then placed it on the main table and chanted directly to it, with his back to the semicircle.

Throughout the whole thing, lots of people were wandering around, praying to icons and lighting candles as if there wasn't a ceremony taking place. I walked over to a carved wooden box I had seen before when I was with Mum; this time the metal statue of the saint lying inside the box had been dressed in purple shoes and a purple velvet robe with gold brocade. As I sat down again the priest was talking to the semicircle, which then broke up and departed.

After leaving the church I went on to the Royal Palace to visit the Ethnographical Museum and the National Gallery. On the way there, I finally managed to catch the Changing of the Guard outside the President's Building! It was a small ceremony, but involved colourful uniforms and lots of goose-stepping.

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Seeing as I was so close by, I diverted and went inside the Rotonda Church of St George, the little circular church with Roman remains that I mentioned in a previous email. Mum and I had visited, but didn't have time to go inside it properly.

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It had some murals on the walls and some of the brickwork showed; the bricks were very narrow and obviously very old, like the ones at the church of Sveta Sofia, where I'd been with Mum the day before.

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There were some tables set up in the middle with food and drink on them and various people standing around eating and drinking. I guessed it might be a special thing put on for National Revival Day, with any visitors allowed to partake, I decided not to join in. I bought a postcard and a fridge magnet and went outside for another quick look at the Roman remains instead. There was a little shrine to St George next to the outside wall.

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The Ethnographical Museum was interesting, just as I thought it would be. I didn't know that Bulgaria was a major silk producer in Ottoman times, after silkworms were introduced to Byzantium from China. It didn't say exactly why Bulgaria was such a centre of the silk industry, but maybe it was because to breed silkworms you need lots of mulberry trees for them to feed on, and Bulgaria had/ has exactly the right climate or soil to grow them. The industry continues in Bulgaria right up to the present day, but is much reduced these days.

There was also interesting information about and exhibits from the traditional building, tobacco, linen flax and cotton industries, embroidery, woodcarving and traditional soap made from pig fat and limestone.

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As well as Bulgarian exhibits, there was a room of Japanese prints and woodcuts and another room with traditional, colourful, spun cotton balls made for the Japanese New Year; this room had Venetian mirror on the walls and an inlaid wooden floor with five types of wood (a museum attendant told me) - it still looked like the interior of a palace. Apparently the last Queen of Bulgaria died in this room.

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Then there was a marble staircase down to a marble-floored corridor to rooms filled with photos and momentoes of Boris III, the last Tsar of Bulgaria, and his wife, who was Italian. The signs here were mostly in Bulgarian and Italian, unlike the ones in the rest of the museum, which were in Bulgarian and English.

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Next came the National Gallery, which wasn't quite as big as I was expecting. There was a photography exhibition by an American called Brian Dailey, mostly very colourful portraits but also a 'Morpheus' series of surrealist, dreamlike photos that I particularly liked.

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Upstairs was a big exhibition of works by the 20th-century Bulgarian artist Nikolay Nikov. It was filled with photos of the artist, watercolours, oil on canvas, cardboard and wood, linocuts, lithographs and ink on cardboard; quite a range of styles, but colourful and well worth seeing.

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There was also some Bulgarian, Italian and English information about Michelangelo, but no paintings, which I found slightly bizarre.

On the way back to my hostel I bought a massive slice of pizza for only 2.19 leva (89p) from one of the many pizza counters in Sofia. As I was eating it I came across a small marching protest on Boulevard Vitosha. I think it was by refugees or in solidarity with them. Lots of flag-waving and chanting, but no sense of danger at all.

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After they had passed by I took the opportunity to go inside the big H&M nearby, to look for work trousers, but didn't find any ones I liked. Then, seeing as I was on Boulevard Vitosha, I bought from my favourite cake shop 5 syrupy batter-like things that I had tried before....

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Last stop was a visit to the same bakery I'd been to in the morning, to buy 5 kashkavalki; two to have for dinner and three to save for breakfast and the journey the next morning. The woman gave me a free chocolate-filled roll and a glazed ring of bread with poppy seeds. Then straight back to the hostel, because I was knackered. I did have to go back out for a bottle of Coke Zero, but after that I just collapsed in bed, read my Kindle, had dinner in bed and then went to sleep early, because I had to get up very early the next morning.

Posted by 3Traveller 12:32 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged art market museum hostel sofia bulgaria procession icons orthodox_church roman_remains bulgarian_cuisine boulevard_vitosha soviet_monument traditional_customs Comments (0)

Mum returns to the UK, I stay on in Sofia

Sofia


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We went down to breakfast at Hotel Niky at 8 and after that finished we walked to Sveti Sofia church, the oldest church in Sofia. It's been restored many times but you can still see foundations of its earlier incarnations in the crypt (some through glass panels in the floor).

On the way there, however, we came across a tiny, circular church with Roman remains outside it. It was in a courtyard that had the President's Building on one side. We went inside the outer, front part of the church, but didn't go into the inner bit because we were in rather a hurry. I made a mental note to come back again later or tomorrow for a proper look. After looking at the Roman remains for a little bit we walked on under the arch at the side of the President's Building, past the Archaeology Museum and onwards. We passed by St Nicholas Russian church, distinctive with its onion-shaped golden domes.

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Once we got to Sveti Sofia church we bought some thin beeswax candles from a stall in the front section and then went into the main part of the church. We were transported with delight... the walls and ceiling were made of brick, but the bricks were very thin ones and you could tell that some of them were very old. In the inside of the big dome in the middle of the ceiling, we could see the bricks going round in circles. Icons and murals or saints adorned the walls.

At 10 o'clock the stairs down to the crypt opened and we went down to explore. We looked round lots and lots of very old brick and stone tombs and sarcophagi from the Roman city of Serdica, which stood where Sofia stands today. One or two of them had wall paintings inside and in one room there was part of a mosaic. We also saw the remains of the earlier Christian churches that stood on the site of the present-day (but still very old) church. We both thought it was really interesting and were glad we'd come.

We left the church quickly, however, because as soon as we'd come back up from the crypt we saw that while we'd been downstairs, a coffin had been placed in the nave, in front of the iconostasis. A group of schoolchildren were entering through the main door. We lit and placed our candles before leaving through one of the side doors.

We walked to the President's Building as quickly as we could, in order to catch the changing of the guard, but we just missed it. Once we got back to Boulevard Vitosha, we bought some more little cakes from the same shop we'd been to the day before; 250g of florentines, 2 of the long syrupy batter things and 2 candied orange slices dipped in chocolate. We didn't eat any of them yet, though, because we stopped at a café for a coffee and a big chunk of Black Forest Gateaux. Somehow Mum ended up with a cup full of hot milk instead of a coffee with milk, but she said she didn't mind! I had an espresso.

Back at Hotel Niky we ordered a taxi, packed up our stuff, ate the orange slices dipped in chocolate, checked out and took the taxi to the airport. After Mum had dropped off her hold bag she had a decaf cappuccino at a cafe and we looked without success for some batteries for me (I'd forgotten to bring my battery charger with me). Then she went past a checkpoint and up an escalator to the bag checks and duty free. I watched her go out of sight and then took a taxi back into town.

After leaving Mum at the airport, I took a taxi back into town and walked to Nightingale Hostel, where I was to spend the following two nights. Whilst checking in and paying, I met a chap from Ipswich who had just come from Budapest. He told me that people arrive in Budapest intending to spend only a couple of days there, but end up staying for weeks or even months! Budapest was already on my priority-to-visit list. I'm definitely going to visit after I finish in Bulgaria next summer.

A couple of jobs needed doing after that; topping up my Bulgarian phone at a Vivacom shop and getting hold of some AA batteries that worked. Once I'd done those, I walked to Aleksander Nevski Cathedral.

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The interior was very impressive, with massive candelabras hanging from wonderfully painted ceilings.

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Only one of the candelbras was lit, so most of the ceiling was left in gloom; the effect of the lighting was very atmospheric. In front of an icon near to the front, I saw a relic. I think it was a small piece of bone. Then I paid six leva to go down into the crypt next door and look round the wonderful collection of historic, colourful icons.

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It was late afternoon by now, so once I had finished gazing at icons, I walked back to the hostel. I missed the hourly changing of the guard outside the President's Building again, but never mind; I knew I'd get more chances the next day. On my return, I sat up in bed with a tub of vegetable and mayo mixture and a cheesy bread I'd bought at the airport earlier, which turned out to have vegetables and chopped-up pieces of frankfurter inside. I read the rest of 'Travels in England in 1782', by Karl Philipp Moritz, on my Kindle. He went to London, Windsor, Oxford and Derbyshire - fascinating.

Posted by 3Traveller 11:10 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged art airport cathedral hostel sofia bulgaria mum icons orthodox_church roman_remains boulevard_vitosha Comments (0)

Mum's here in VT

Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo


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I woke up from one of the best night's sleep I've ever had. The stairways at this place were pretty dingy, but the bedroom (and especially the mattress) was nice. I had a pretty basic breakfast in the basement, took a shower, checked out at what I thought was 11.30 (leaving my rucksack to pick up later) and went out for my first walk around Sofia.

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My aim was to find the hotel where Mum and I would be staying the following Thursday night. I passed by a copper-domed cathedral, intending to have a look inside if I had enough time after finding the hotel. Then I walked down Boulevard Vitosha, one of the main streets. There were remnants of snow around, but it didn't look as if it had snowed nearly as much as it had in VT. I could see snowcapped mountains in the distance. After walking down Bld. Vitosha for quite a while and then along a side street I found the hotel, Hotel Niky.

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By the time I had walked back again, there was no time to go inside the cathedral, because it was time to pick up my rucksack and get a taxi to the airport! As soon as I got there I realised that I had arrived an hour too early... I hadn't realised that the clocks went back in Bulgaria! Oh well.... time passed quite quickly just waiting for Mum's arrival.

Once she had arrived we did what I'd done when I arrived in September; took a taxi to the main bus station and then the bus to VT. This time the journey was the standard time, though the woman I got the tickets from didn't understand me when I tried asking if the bus was direct, so throughout most of the journey I wasn't 100% certain if our route was the direct one or not. We talked loads on the journey, plus did a crossword together. She also told me some very sad, medical family news :-(

It was dark once we arrived in VT, but it wasn't that late, only about 18.30. There was still loads of snow around. I showed her the flat and she rested for a bit while I nipped to the shop to get one or two things. Once I got back we went out to a restaurant down the road for some dinner. This place, Malkia Inter, is rather eccentrically decorated with a fish tank, icons, several types of musical instrument, souvenirs from different countries and lots more. I had one of my favourites, chicken kavarma (chicken and vegetable stew in a clay pot), and Mum had the pork version.

When we got back the flat was freezing but I couldn't get the air conditioning to turn into the heater mode. Eventually it did start working, however. It turned out that because it was the first time I'd tried using it as a heater, it just took a while for the air blowing out to become warm.

Posted by 3Traveller 15:35 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged snow airport cathedral hostel buses sofia bulgaria mum veliko_tarnovo bulgarian_cuisine boulevard_vitosha Comments (0)

SNOW!!! - Long journey to Sofia though!

Veliko Tarnovo and Sofia


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Next week is half term for many schools in the UK; with that in mind, Mum is coming to visit for a few days and arrives at Sofia Airport tomorrow. I went to Sofia today so I could stay the night and not have to travel on the day itself.

I had my usual one-to-one FCE class from 9.30 to 11.30 am, arriving at 9 to do a bit of marking first. It was raining slightly as I walked to work, but half an hour into the lesson I noticed that it had started snowing! I thought to myself that it wouldn't settle, because of the rain earlier, but after another half hour I noticed that a lot of snow had already settled! It was the first time I'd seen snow first hand since February or March 2013, so I was excited.

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I went back to the flat straight after work, sorted a few things out and set off for the little ETAP bus station. The snow had got even deeper by then. The first step I took onto the road, I slipped and fell onto my back - I had my rucksack on though, so I was OK. I arrived at the bus station to the news that the Sofia bus was delayed due to the unexpected snow and they weren't selling tickets yet because they didn't know how long it would take to get there. It arrived an hour and a quarter later and the journey itself took six hours instead of the three hours and twenty minutes it should have taken. This was because it went via Pleven, a city to the north-west of Veliko Tarnovo, instead of the normal route.

The six hours didn't feel that long, however, because I spent a lot of time looking out of the window at the scenery. It was still snowing. I realised on this journey that it was probably the first time I had seen whole forests of snow-laden coniferous trees stretching into the distance and definitely the first time I'd seen snow-laden deciduous trees with their leaves still on. When we passed by fields, quite often I couldn't tell where the fields ended and the sky began.

I arrived in Sofia at about 10 pm and got ripped off a treat by the taxi driver, who took me on a much more roundabout route than needed. I made a mental note just to walk in the future. I arrived at Hostel Lavele, letting myself in with the key that had been left for me. I had been upgraded from a 4 bed dorm to a twin room for some reason! I'd bought a hot dog and some chocolate at one of our stops on the journey, so I had that for dinner.

Posted by 3Traveller 14:51 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged snow hostel buses sofia bulgaria mum veliko_tarnovo english_teaching extreme_weather Comments (0)

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