Greetings from Sofia,Bulgaria

Keep on Rockin' the Free World
5th June 2013

After yesterday's frantic early start we decided to ease ourselves into the day as lesiurely as possible this morning. We stayed in bed long after waking up which felt such a luxury.

I then set about cooking a full English breakfast. It was quite a success, especially the large flat mushrooms which were a taste throw-back to the days when we would pick them fresh from the fields. (It's strange how we don't seem to do that anymore.) They were just so full of flavour. Julie crossed her fingers when trying something that looked a little like bacon but not as we knew it. Thankfully that also tasted great.

A little later when I went to wash up there wasn't any water coming from the taps. "Oh no!" Fortunately the kettle was full so we had enough for tea. Panic over. Never mind the fact that we couldn't have a shower or flush the toilet! At least we had a cup of tea!

By the time we left the appartment it was the afternoon. Our first port of call was the offices of BgAccomodation to report that we had no water. They were already aware of the problem. Appaently the whole neighbourhood had been switched off because of the work taking place on Vitosha Boulevard. They had huge 10 litre water containers lined up and offered to take one up to our appartment. They were only young girls and we didn't want them lugging those huge bottles so we told them it was fine. We were going out for the day and they were confident it would be back by the time we'd get back.

With all that sorted we walked across the city along yet another different path, this time down a street called Neofit Rilski and then to ulica 6th September.

When we crossed the tram lines at Graf Ignatiev we came to a large park. At one end was the Church of Sveti Sedmochilenitsi (or also known as the Seven Saints)

A crowd was gathering outside so we sat at the cafe bar opposite to people watch.  As it was already the afternoon, it wasn't too early for a beer!

We were expecting a wedding as a large white transit van rolled up; which we thought could have been the florist. But it turned out they were all gathered to pay their last respects and the white van was in fact the hearse. The coffin was carried inside and everyone followed.

We took a closer look at the church. It was originally built as a mosque by the Ottomans, then after liberation it was used briefly as a prison before being converted in 1903 into the church we see today.

Above the main entrance was a mosaic of Christ and the seven saints who brought Christianity to the Balkans including superstar saints St. Cyril and St. Methodius. It was like a group photo of Jesus and the magnificent seven.

On either side of the entrance was a notice board filled with obituaries. We'd never seen that before. It was quite an odd idea but no different to obituaries in the paper I suppose.

We read their names, saw their family's favourite photo of them and if we understood Bulgarian we could have read their story.

We walked inside the church briefly.

It was standing room only and full to the back. According to a cross that bore his name Ctroh Ceprheb Ctorhob,who died aged 61. We've gatecrashed a few weddings before but we drew a line at a funeral.

It reminded me of when Julie admitted to actually gatecrashing a funeral!

Whilst I was on a work training day in Bristol she spent the day in the city. She walked inside the cathedral and sat down. Then the place suddenly filled up around her, everyone dresed in black! She waited a while before making a discreet exit.

Continuing with the rather morbid theme we passed the Mausoleum of Prince Alexander Battenburg. He was from German aristocracy (famous for their cake) who was chosen to be Bulgaria's first monarch in 1879. He didn't last long abdicating seven years later. Even so Bulgaria honoured him with a mausoleum.

Standing in it's own grounds the small white marble buidling with a bright yellow dome was interesting, although not interesting enough to make us cross the road!

We continued along the busy Vasil Levsky road until we reached the entrance to Knyazheska park.

In the centre was the massive Monument to the Soviet Army. A granite pillar stood over a 100ft tall topped by a truimphant soldier from the Red Army holding aloft his rifle, standing shoulder to shoulder with a "worker" and a "peasant woman" with her child.

Following the conclusion of the Second World War Bulgaria fell behind the Iron Curtain, the Eastern bloc of countries under the influence and all but in name was annexed to the Soviet Union.

The monument was built in 1954 to honour Bulgaria's Russian liberators from Nazi Germany. (Although their liberty wasn't exactly free afterwards either.)

On the plinth at the base of the pillar there was quite a dramatic scene of flag bearing soldiers forging forwards to the rescue.

Ever since the fall of communism there have been calls to dismantle the monument and is often a victim of vandalism in anti-Russian protests. In recent years the monument has been defaced by having the soldiers painted.

The most inventive was when the soliders were painted as modern day Western "heroes" such as Superman, Ronald McDonald, Captain America and Santa Claus!

It was really well done and has to be seen to be fully appreciated! It was almost a shame to wash it off!

I'm not sure if it was a protest or simply an artistic expression of "moving with the times" which was the slogan daubed beneath. I'm sure if you googled it you can still find the image!

We moved on towards a group of youngsters. Much of the space round here had been turned into a skate park, some offically, with half pipes and uh ... other skating paraphenalia installed but the rest of the park was effectively also their domain to skate.

There was another collection of statues on a plinth a little futher away portraying of the welcoming of the Red Army by the people of Bulgaria.

Its attention to detail was superb. The fabric of the old peasant woman's shawl, the strong heroic features of the female Soviet soldier, the joy in the faces of the workers. A moment in history captured forever.

Of course the communist ideology behind it was more to remind the people how lucky they were for Russian support.

On the corner near the metro station and in front of Sofia University we came across a small cafe. It was a convenient pit stop before the next leg of today's itinerary.

Breakfast was some time ago so we ordered food. I went for a yogurt topped with honey and hazlenuts. It arrived in a nice earthenware pot. I peeled off the foil lid, then bent the spoon as I tried to scoop some out. It was frozen solid!

Julie ordered some "chicken bites" which actually looked quite nice. She cut one of the smaller ones in half and found real chicken!

Unfortunately when she cut one of the larger pieces in half she found raw chicken!

We sent it back and the waiter returned with them well-cooked. He apologised profusely. "We have a new chef" he explained "and she doesn't know what she is doing."

Once my yogurt had defrosted enough so I could eat it, we left.

As if we hadn't had enough communist ideology for one day we were now on our way to the Museum of Socialist Art.

It was a train ride away so we entered St. Kliment Ohridski University metro station with its impressive bas relief of the saint looking over us as we descended underground.

Navigating Sofia's metro system was straightforward. To begin with it only had two lines, crossing only once in the centre at Serdica. Having only been operational since 1998 it was a very sleek and modern metro.

The only question we had to solve was which side of the platform we needed to take us Eastwards. We eventually decyphered the board and found our destination of GM Dimitrov. Within a minute a train arrived. It was quite full but there was room.

Plain clothed inspectors were making spot checks for tickets. It was strange how guilty I felt hoping they didn't ask me despite being in possesion of a valid ticket.

We travelled underground for a while, (two stops) before emerging overground, although we were still covered by perspex tunnel.

As we travelled along the tracks the blue stripe of the tunnel whizzed past giving an odd sensation. It was like we were in a sci-fi movie hurtling along in our pod towards sector 9.

At the station named after Bulgaria's first communist era President Georgi M Dimitrov we got out and walked back towards the city for a few minutes until we reached the twin Sopharma towers.

There were no mention in our guidebook about this Museum. I had only come across is whilst researching Sofia on the internet.

Finding it would have been challenging but I had done my homework memorising directions posted onto Trip Advisor and having already "visited" the place using Google street view.

We turned right, crossing the road at the lights onto ul. Luchezar Stanev. This street took us to the Ministry of Culture complete with gated entrance and a security guard on duty. "Museum?" I asked.

He pointed towards the back of the building where we could see a garden filled with statues but first we stopped at a window where another bored looking member of staff was sat waiting.

We paid 6 lv each to enter and in return got an A4 map listing the names of all the statues in the garden.

First to greet us to the home for retired statues was Che Guevera. I wasn't expecting to see him here but I suppose it was an act of solidarity with their Cuban brothers.

Behind him was a large red star that once stood on top the Communist Party House in Sofia.

Next we came across Lenin the grandfather of it all, the leader of the 1917 Russian revolution, looking daper in his flat cap, getting down with the peasants.

We continued further into the reclaimed car park of the Ministry of Culture. It wasn't a particularly large space but enough to fit 77 statues. Every 2 or 3 metres there would be a statue. Most were busts or small in scale but every now and again there would be a giant.

Next to Lenin, Georgi Dimitrov became a familiar face. He was the first General Secretary of the communist Bulgaria. He was only in office for three years before he died.

Rather oddly there were no statues of Todor Zhivkov Bulgaria's President for 35 years until the fall of communism in 1989. Nor were there any of Stalin.

Most of the statues were classic socialist art. Peasants gleefully happy in their work, square jawed heroic soldiers proud to protect, all athletic specimens, all happy to serve the collective.

It was interesting to see statues of strong armed women from the furthest corners of Asian Soviet Union carrying their tools to toil the land. These were a potent method of propoganda, promoting the ideals of socialism and communism.

However, the truth of the paranoid one party state system was a little less ideal.

At the back of the garden was a massive 45 tonne statue of Lenin that once stood in the centre of Sofia. It towered over all others.

Julie and I recalled our trip to Moscow in 2002 where we visited Lenin's mausoleum and saw his embalmed body. It was such an incredible and unforgettable experience.

The weather today was generally overcast. Rain was a constant threat. Luckily it held off long enough for us to see all the statues outside.

We couldn't have timed it any better as the rain began to fall as we entered the museum.

There were a few oil paintings, many of the city during the communist era or of workers busy in the field.

The vast majority of the artwork on display were propoganda posters. My favourite was the Socialist Workers of the World United which had flag waving representatives of all the communist states marching forwards under the banner of peace, a green flag with a white dove.

Quite ironic really given all the politically motivated killings delivered by the regimes as they tried to control the people and hold on to power.

The best artefact in here was the curator, or at least the lady who looked after the place.

She shuffled along, hunched and brow beaten. She smiled a very forlorn smile when we said hello and when I asked where was the cinema she spoke in a barely audible whisper.

I don't know where they dug her up from but she was certainly the highlight of the museum. A real treasure in her own right!

We followed her directions for the cinema which was in a room at the back of the gift shop.

We sat down in front of a large flat screen TV and the lady in the shop pressed play on the DVD to begin the short propaganda film.

It was a documentary about the rise and fall of communism. Scenes of the May Day celebrations were so fascinating. The narration was in Bulgarian but we had English subtitles so we could follow what was going on.

It wasn't just tanks rolling past, followed by marching soldiers but also tumbling gymnasts forming human pyramids and thousands of joyful flag-waving citizens.

It had the look and feel of a circus parade!

The documentary also covered the death of Georgi Dimitrov. He died in 1949 during a visit to Moscow. Dying with his boots on so to speak gave him such a revered status.

When his body returned to Sofia they built a large mausoleum and encased his embalmed body in a glass sarcophagus. It was built in front of the Royal Palace in what is now known as Prince Alexandur Battenburg car park (oh I mean square).

It's a shame it longer exists. It was understanably torn down in 1999 along with all other reminders of the communist regime.

After half an hour the first documentary finished and another one began. That's when we decided to leave. Thankfully the rain had passed and the sun was shinning.

Our plan now was to continue with the communist theme and find a cafe bar called Checkpoint Charlie for a bite to eat. So we hurried back to the metro and caught the train back to the University station.

From there we walked up and down ul. Ivan Vazov looking for Charlie. The address was No. 12 but he wasn't there anymore. Instead there was a trendy restaurant called Concept.

We ended up walking along the side of the National Theatre and back towards the City Garden. When we got there I was so excited to see that the fountains were on!

Whilst I set off to take some photographs Julie waited for me at the Park Cafe in front of the theatre.

It was amazing what a difference a water feature made. The water danced all around the nymph bringing the whole scene alive with movement.

As we left the City Gardens we came across a row of people sat down on upturned milk crates playing chess in the park.

It was great to stand and watch them for a while. A young pretender had challenged the wise old master and wasn't doing too badly. We didn't wait around for the result. Chess is not known as a fast-paced game.

Following ul. Knyaz Aleksander I we found ourselves back on Vitosha Boulevard.

"Do you know" said Julie "I don't think there's a street we've not walked down!"

Outside a hotel called Les Fleurs our tiring legs persuaded us to sit down again. We had a drink and I had a look at their menu. I couldn't stop myself from ordering something that had been intriguing me since I heard about it.

It was a dish known as Mish-mash or Hoch-poch as they had translate for the menu. It was exactly as described, a mish-mash of scrambled egg, tomato sauce and the white sirene cheese.

Despite looking like a plate of vomit garnished with green grass it tasted rather nice.

Just as we were about to move on the heaven's opened and a heavy downpour passed over us. So we forced to stay and have another drink!

We were kept nice and dry beneath large Heineken parasols as we watched a local retard (am I allowed to say that these days?) dance in the rain to the music from a few buskers who were playing on regardless of the weather.

He kept us entertained, although we made sure we avoided eye contact in case he came over to say hello.

Once the shower finished people reappeared.

Julie noticed that there were many women all drinking from the same yellow can. It was such an odd sight. It's the sort of thing you would normally only associate with homeless alcoholics not seemingly respectable women.

Once we finished our drink, resepectfully from a glass sat at a table of a reputable establishment we continued down Vitosha Boulevard.

A quick glance at our mobile phones and we realised that it had already gone 5pm. We decided against a siesta. Julie feared that if she closed her eyes for a moment then that would be it for the night. So we decided to push through.

We did need a few supplies however, so whilst Julie parked herself at Cafe Bisov I scooted around a small mini-market right next door. The essentials, water, bread and toilet rolls went into the basket.

I then noticed the yellow cans that was so popular with the strollers. It was called Ariana and came in two styles. A real bonafide lager at 4.2% and a light lemon lager at 1.8%. Naturally I bought one of each.

I ran the shopping back up to our apartment then rejoined Julie before the drinks arrived!

When we left and began walking down Vitosha I produced the yellow beer cans from my bag, opened the lemon one and handed it to Julie. She almost fell over laughing! There we were strolling down the street like locals!

I explained to Julie that it was called Ariana and added "I wonder if Rachel knows she's named her daughter after a Bulgarian beer!"

Our public drinking didn't last long. The beer was awful and the lemon concoction was even worse. They both went into the first bin we came too.

Our plan for this evening was to have a meal at a "Bulgarian" themed restaurant the other side of the NDK. Totally trashy and touristy but they're usually also a lot of fun.

The sun was setting and casting a beautiful light onto the 1300 years monument. It looked almost attractive!

Even the massive mothership of NDK looked an architectural beauty washed in sunset gold. It was a shame the fountains weren't switched on. It would have been even prettier.

Behind the concert hall we followed the path through a park until we reached a road. We knew it was to the right somewhere so we followed the pavement in that direction.

We came to a large concrete building, looking more like a multi-storey car park. There was a sign on the top floor for Chevermeto with two large red arrows pointing down. We had clearly found the place but where was it?

There wasn't an obvious entrance anywhere. After several minutes of searching and head scratching we eventually came to the basement level and found the door.

We were met by a burly doorman. We admitted to not having made a reservation. We actually would have admitted to anything as he was quite intimidating. It was exceptionally busy. To fill such a large venue was some acheivement. It was a strange mix of tourist groups and Bulgarian business men entertaining .

Luckily they had a few tables spare on an upper level overlooking the floor where the entertainment was taking place.

Whilst we were shown to our table two ladies were singing some awful karaoke style songs. They were then followed by some traditional folk dancing.

It was a bit of a distraction as we had to concentrate on choosing our food whilst not wanting to miss out.

To start with I had a Shopske salad. It wasn't nearly as nice as the one we bought from the Central Market. The quality of the cheese wasn't the best. However it was all fresh and tasty enough.

For my main course I ordered a cheese and potato pie called a Patatnik and a platter of roasted vegetables. Julie went for a slow-cooked lamb that the restaurant was renowned for. In fact was even named after!

The standard of the food was impressive considering it was mass catering. The portions were also generous. Both my dishes would have been large enough as mains in their own right.

The entertainment was ... well ... entertaining. It pains me to admit it but I really enjoyed watching the folk dancing. I was undoubtedly getting caught up in the moment!

I wouldn't dream of going to watch some Morris Dancers prancing around the maypole or traditonal Welsh folk dancing but whilst away on holiday the self-imposed barriers come down.

I did manage to stop myself from stepping forward when they called for some audience participation but only just.

I spent most of the time trying to get a decent photo which in the low light and with their constant movement was a challenge. There were plenty of hopping and skipping, twirling and waving. It was refreshing to see how much fun the dancers were having. They appeared to be having a ball and their energy was infectious. Whilst the situation was as contrived for us tourists it was still a joy to watch.

Inbetween the gaps for their costume changes the cabaret singer stepped in and belted her heart out as if she was in the final of Bulgaria's Got Talent. She reminded Julie of Margarita Pracatan a Cuban singer who used to sing popular hits with a heavy Hispanic accent for the Clive James Show back in the Eighties.

I don't know how but I somehow caught her eye. She locked onto me and effetively serenaded me from the floor, waving to me and winking as she sang. I was so grateful for the barrier between us.

The price included a three course meal with show so it would have been rude not to have ordered a dessert.

I wanted to try a doughnut dish called Tiganitchki mostly because of its funky name but they had sold out.

Instead I went for a baked apple which didn't have a fancy name but looked great and tasted even better. It had been baked to the point of shrivelling up like a prune, spiked with a huge amount of cinamon and made pretty by a dusting of icing sugar.

The dancing continued but it was time for us to leave. We paid our bill and set off back towards Vitosha.

The park at the back of the NDK was not at all lit so it was sensible not to go that way. You never can tell what's lurking in the shadows.

So we safely skirted around the park along the roadside until we came to the front of the NDK. From there, in the distance, we could see a rainbow of neon signs guiding us towards Vitosha.

There was something quite beguiling about the reflected glow of the advertising signs on the wet floor. Never has a Coca Cola sign look so pretty!

It was gone 11pm and time for bed but before we said goodnight to Sofia we had one more hoorah at Bar Memento. It was the first and our last.

As before we only lasted one round before realsing that we were in fact too tired to party and we should head for home. We concluded that this sensible behaviour was not the result of us finally growing up but only the side effect of us getting older!

Back in our apartment we should have spent some time packing our suitcase but fuelled by the spirit of mañana we left it all until the morning.

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