Sofia, Bulgaria: A Diamond in the Rough

I have to admit that I probably wouldn’t have ever gone to Bulgaria if we hadn’t been invited to a wedding.
Bulgaria is a country that just isn’t on the radar for most Americans.  Until a few weeks ago I definitely could not have pointed it out on a map (admittedly, geography is not my strong suit) or told you anything about the history.  It is one of those Eastern European countries that Americans tend to lump together in one amorphous “former Commies” blob.  However, after spending a week in two of Bulgaria’s largest cities, I have become an unofficial Bulgarian ambassador!  We had a wonderful time in Bulgaria exploring the cities, relaxing on the beach, learning a lot of history, and eating the delicious food.

This post is going to focus on the highlights from our time in Sofia, the capital city and one of the oldest cities in Europe.  Sofia is a really interesting place because of the mix of beautiful ornate buildings, towering Soviet-era constructions, and modern shopping and restaurants.  I haven’t spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe before so I was a little taken aback by the obvious lack of funding for infrastructure in the city.  Uneven sidewalks, crumbling apartment buildings, buses and trams from the 1960s, and old fountains filled with stagnant water, are contrasted by the incredible architecture of the city’s most famous landmarks.  The aging infrastructure was kind of depressing to see because Sofia could be, and I hope it will become, a really cool destination for international travelers.  Therefore, as a self-proclaimed tourism ambassador, I will do my part to encourage my friends to give Bulgaria a try!

One really cool thing we did in Sofia that I want to mention was taking a free English walking tour!  We are not usually “tour people” – we usually just explore on our own with the guidance of TripAdvisor or Wikitravel – but we read so many positive reviews of the free tour that we decided to give it a go.  The tours (which are available in 100+ European cities) are lead by local volunteers who are passionate & knowledgable about their city.  The tour gives you a brief overview of the major highlights in the city without taking much of your time (the tours are ~2 hours long).  I definitely recommend them to you for your next European adventure!
Another tip for getting to know a city is to meet up with a Couchsurfing group!  We caught up with a CS group on our first night in Sofia for some drinks and good conversation with locals and other travelers.  Couchsurfing and Meetup groups are a great way to meet locals in whichever city you are exploring and get a real feel for the city.  The locals are eager to tell you about their city and give you tips on things to see, places to eat/drink, and things to avoid.  If you’re in Berlin you might even run into us.🙂

Now let’s get on to some pictures so you can see how cool Sofia really is!

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The view of Sofia from Mount Vitosha where we went for a short hike.  The mountain is fairly easy to access from the city by tram and bus.

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Here you can see the cool mix of large, beautiful buildings and ancient ruins.  The church and ruins above were part of Serdica, the ancient Roman city that later become Sofia.

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The new city of Sofia was built on top of the ancient city of Serdica and today some of the ancient ruins and roads can still be seen!  The above pictures are from one of the underground subway stops in the city center.  It is pretty amazing to think of how many people have walked on those stones.

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Above is the St. George Rotunda, another relic from Serdica, built in the 4th century.

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The Ivan Vazov National Theater isn’t ancient but it is beautiful and it faces the large city garden.

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Sofia has been home to mineral baths for centuries but the current baths were shut down in the late 1980s.  Our tour guide told us that the city is planning to reopen part of the baths and turn the rest of this large building into a museum.

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Sofia is known for its mineral springs and from these fountains behind the public bath house you can fill up your water bottles with water from the hot springs below the city.

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Alexandr Nevsky Cathedral is a symbol of Sofia and is one of the most popular tourists sights.

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Here you can see a bit of the contrast of old vs. new that exists in Sofia.  On the left is a fountain outside of the gigantic concrete convention center.  I guess neither of us even bothered to take a photo of the convention center because it was a real eyesore.  On the right is the church of St. Nedelya, which has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times, most notably after a bombing by the Bulgarian Communist Party in 1925 in an attempt to kill the Tsar.  Luckily for him, he was running late and was not present during the attack.

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This is a pretty good example of the Soviet-era construction in Sofia.  In the back is the Soviet Army Monument, which is covered in graffiti and vandals occasionally decorate parts of the monument and surrounding smaller sculptures to mock the former Communists.

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Sofia also has a lot of green space!

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Yes, people really do sit in these elevated booths at some of the city intersections but I have no idea why!

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Above & below: The National Museum of Military History is a must-see if you (like us) have little to no knowledge of the history of Bulgaria.  The museum has four floors of displays that detail the history of Bulgaria from ancient to modern times.  On the museum lawn are many, many military planes, tanks, helicopters, anti-aircraft weapons, and even the antique car picture above.  It is a little pricy at 12 €/person but totally worth it if you enjoy history and weaponry!

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Last but definitely not least, I had to include a picture of our favorite Bulgarian dish – the classic shopska salad.  This salad is a standard appetizer and is often paired with rakia, a traditional Bulgarian liquor similar to grappa or schnapps.  The salad has a fairly simple recipe of cucumber, tomato, sweet red pepper, red onion, parsley, vinegar, and the soft white cheese that is ubiquitous in Bulgarian cuisine.  The cheese, which we fell head over heels in love with, is similar to feta but has a less sour flavor; it is not only served with salads but also with breakfast.  I was overjoyed to find Bulgarian cheese in our local Edeka supermarket!

So, the moral of this story is: “Traveling is like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you’re gonna get.”  I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Bulgaria as much as I did but I was totally charmed by its natural beauty, affordability, and amazing food.
In my next post, I’ll share with you our trip to the seaside resort town of Varna, Bulgaria for a wedding we will never forget!

Photo Potpourri – Karneval der Kulturen

I think you have figured out by now that I love food.
My German teacher said that eating & drinking don’t count as hobbies in Germany – whatever.  Food is definitely my hobby – cooking, eating, admiring, reviewing…I love every thing about it!  So I was overjoyed when I learned that a cultural festival featuring food from around the world was happening in Berlin!  The Karneval der Kulturen (carnival of cultures) is a yearly street fair/giant party/parade that takes place in Kreuzberg over a long weekend.  The carnival highlights and celebrates the many different cultures present in Berlin.  At the parade, people put on traditional costumes from their home countries and put on a show for the crowd.  It is a hugely popular event – we read that the parade alone attracts around 1 million attendees!  Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to the parade until it was over but we did hit up the street fair a few times!  The carnival was a great way to enjoy the beautiful weather, get excited for summer, and eat a lot.

P.S. Pictures of yummy food & fun times from our trip to Bulgaria will be coming soon!  We had an amazing time and took a lot of pictures, so editing them all may take a while.🙂  I’m also hoping to have a new layout up soon that I coded and designed myself!

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1. Empenadas and arepas!  Good Latin American food is so hard to come by here so, naturally, we were thrilled to see booths ran by actual Latin American people.  These were delicious!  I don’t think the booth was ran by a specific restaurant so we probably won’t be able to have these again until next year.

2. This Vietnamese burger from District Mot was awesome!  Between the steamed rice bun, pickled veggies, the chip, cilantro, and good beef we couldn’t get enough.  Hopefully we will make it out to their restaurant sometime enjoy another one!

3. Berlin’s finest!

4. I think this dish was called ‘Funky Chicken’ and was served at a West African booth.  Anywho, it was a crunchy fried chicken kabob sprinkled with curry powder, served w/ salad and a dressing similar to Thousand Island.  It was very tasty and matched well with the passion fruit beer I had from the same stand.

5. This may have been my favorite dish we tried at the carnival because fish is not something we eat often here.  This delicious chunk of salty smoked salmon topped with a dill sauce came from a Finnish booth – it was to die for.  The outer edges of the fish were sooo salty and sooo crispy…it was amazing.

6. This is a very small fraction of the trash that was left behind after the parade.  We ventured out at night after the parade and it felt like walking into apocalyptic ground zero.  Thousands of beer bottles lined the streets, some nicely arranged into large piles for the bottle collectors who return them for money; broken glass everywhere; paper plates & napkins drifted eerily down the street, and still the Berliners partied on!  Every so often along the 6 km parade route we stumbled upon an impromptu dance party outside of some cafe whose owners were (brilliantly) selling beer on the street and blasting dance music.  It was a strange sight to see but made for a fun night!

Photo Potpourri – Week 13

Thursday (6/6) was our 3 month Berliniversary!
It was also the day our traveler’s visas would have expired had we not secured our residence permits.  Due to a series of semi-unfortunate events, I had to wait until the last minute to make the dreaded trip to the Ausländerbehörde (the foreigner’s office) and apply for a long-term visa.  The stories on forums and blogs online about the Ausländerbehörde are terrifying; I read many tales of long wait times, confusing requirements, non-English speaking employees, general woe & despair, etc…  Last Sunday night I was so anxious about going the next morning that I barely slept.  I guess I got lucky because the whole experience didn’t end up being too awful.  I did have to make two attempts before securing my visa, but the wait time was relatively short and the employees were very nice.  Maybe now that I am completely legal (I think) in Germany I will try to sum up the whole process in a blog post in the future.
With that trial overcome I can now move onto today’s potpourri which, as usual, features parks, beer & food!

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1. The purple color in this ice cream is almost as awesome as the flavor that comes from the ube or purple yam.  Ube flavored desserts are hugely popular in Asia and Polynesia.  It has a deliciously smooth, buttery flavor that reminds me of taro.  This scoop came from an ice cream shop up the street from the Südstern U-bahn station.

2. We finally made it over to Görlitzer Park, one of the most popular parks in Berlin.  It was a fun spot to eat a picnic dinner and people watch.

3. Now onto another park – Mauerpark!  We met up with an expat meet-up group here for some BBQ’ing last weekend.  The weather was beautiful, the park was bustling, and the karaoke was rocking!  This is a picture of the crowd filling the “stands” watching brave karaoke singers belt out tunes for the entire park to hear.  Maybe someday Alex and I will have the courage (probably the liquid kind) to get up there!

4. The Berlin Craft Beer Festival was also last weekend in Friedrichshain!  It was small but there were some great breweries & brews we had never tasted before.  Naturally, there were tons of Americans there enjoying some non-pilsners while they could.

5. These meat pies from Hellogoodpie were awesome!  To be honest, I only tasted the filling (I’m not a big fan of pie crust) but Alex ate the whole thing and we both loved it.

6. More ice cream!  This time I tried a chocolate + pandan combo.  Pandan is another staple of Southeast Asian desserts and it has a great kind of nutty, fatty flavor.  I am really loving living so close to this awesome ice cream shop!  Now I just need to figure out the name of the store…

In other news: Next week we will be in Bulgaria!  I am very, very excited to get away for a bit and enjoy the beach.  Pictures & more will follow, of course!  See you soon.🙂

Berlinburger International

As I’ve mentioned before, Berliners love burgers. Which is funny because the German word for ‘citizen’ is bürger, haha…  Anywho, we popped into a popular local burger joint in Kreuzberg called Berlinburger International (aka BBI) on a cold Thursday and left happy & very, very full.  BBI has a tiny storefront on Pannierstraße (near Hermannplatz) that often has a long line out the door.
What BBI lacks in space they more than make up for with their big burgers!

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Is your mouth watering?  In the front of the picture above is the cheeseburger with jalapeños that I ordered and in the back is the Mexican-ish burger Alex had.  Note the giant pile of guac spilling off of Alex’s burger.  That’s right, real guacamole with chunks!  This is hard to come by in Berlin.  As you can see, the burgers are loaded up with toppings, including far too much salad for any normal sized mouth.  Consequently, most people were pushing off most of the greens and eating it like a little side salad, which is definitely not a bad thing in my book.  I was also very, very happy that they gave me such a generous portion of jalapeños.🙂

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We also had some amazing potato wedges which were good enough to rival KFC’s, especially when smothered with ketchup & mayo.  At first I thought the portion was a bit small but trying to tackle both the wedges and a burger in one meal is quite the challenge.

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Above is a picture of BBI’s tiny, tiny storefront.  I kind of like how their logo looks like it belongs to a government office.  It would be awesome if all Berlin government buildings served me delicious hamburgers to go with my inevitable long wait times.  Just an idea…hint, hint.

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Nothing pairs better with a big burger than a big bottle of a light beer!  This Augustinerbräu is a go-to bottled beer for us and it looks very beautiful against the background of BBI’s graffitied tables.  The seating arrangement at BBI isn’t the best, but considering the minuscule space they are working with the only thing they could maybe do is add more outdoor tables.  They do have a few seats inside – although you are likely to have someone in the queue rubbing up against you throughout your meal.

I don’t think I will ever be able to confidently deem a restaurant the best burgers in Berlin – there are waaay too many burger joints in this city to single out just one!  As soon as you think you’ve had the best one another juicy burger dripping in toppings comes along and makes you reconsider.  Regardless, BBI is an excellent choice for big burgers at a low price, despite the lack of seating.  For more info, check out BBI on their website and on Yelp!

Thai in the Park

Berlin is full of surprises.  It seems like every week we hear about another cool, semi-unknown, event or place in the city that blows our minds.  Our most recent discovery was the Thaiwiese (Thai meadow) market in Wilmersdorf.   The market is an unofficial event that occurs daily but the biggest turnout is on the weekend when dozens of Thai women, men, and families set up make-shift food stands in a park to sell homemade Thai classics for low prices.  For us, this is what dreams are made of.
The market is situated near the back of Preußenpark (right at the Fehrbelliner Platz U-Bahn station) and there is also a flowmarkt (flea market) at the front of the park.  At the Thai market you can find all of your favorite dishes from pad Thai to papaya salad to delicious sticky cakes wrapped in banana leaves.  The food was by far the best Thai we have had in Berlin.  Finally some real, authentic, spicy Thai food!!

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Our meal began with these chicken skewers smothered in a chunky peanut sauce.  Sweet, nutty, a little spicy – delicious!

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Next, we went for a plate of one of our very favorite Thai staples – spicy papaya salad!  I loved watching the lady crush the ingredients with a giant mortar & pestle (the kind Alex wishes we had at home) and appreciated that she asked how many chilies we wanted in the mix.  Papaya salad always puts me in a good mood.🙂

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As our ‘entree’ we enjoyed a large plate overflowing with four kinds of Thai noodle dishes.  I’m not entirely sure what some of the dishes were but all were tasty.  I believe that the top right quadrant was some kind of Pad See Ew; to the right were glassnoodles; bottom right is of course the always popular Pad Thai; and bottom left were a denser noodle, kind of like lo mein.  It was a huge amount of noodles for only 5 euro!

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Of course we had to pair our meal with some Thai beer!

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Sadly, after the big noodle plate we were too full to try any other entrees but we could not resist getting a Thai cake dessert.  We used to buy similar cakes from the Asian markets in Virginia and they never disappoint.  I’m not sure what these are called or made from buuuut I think these kinds of cakes are usually made from rice flour, coconut, and lots of sugar!  Which is probably why they are so incredibly delicious.  They also come wrapped in a super cute banana leaf package.

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Looking at the pictures makes me want to go back again this weekend!  Just when I thought I’d be stuck eating mediocre Asian food forever, a pop-up market in a park comes along and rocks my world.  Unique finds like the Thaiwiese are what make Berlin such a fun place to live!

Photo Potpourri – Week 10

We are busy here in Berlin.
In between starting German classes 5 days x week, learning basic programming, household chores/feeding the Big Hog, and trying to fit in some gym time, there’s not much space left in my day for bloggin’.  So I apologize if I go a little M.I.A. for the next few weeks!
However, we did take some time off from serious pursuits last weekend to hang with old & new friends.  There was a programming conference in town last week which gave Alex the perfect opportunity to meet new people and talk about his true love (coding) at the same time!  We met some really cool nerds, found some new hangouts spots, and – in true Berlin fashion – stayed out ’til the sun came up.
Another highlight of the weekend was our first American-style German football game!  It felt like a high school or middle school game, but it was still super fun.  Between the smaller-than-average field, pre-teen cheerleaders, streakers, and the World Cup-style announcing (“FUUUUMMMBBBBLLLEEEE!!!”), nothing was quite ‘American’ but it was definitely unique.  The most authentic thing about the game was the dismal weather – it was cold & rainy, just like any Monday Night Football game in November!
Here are some very misc. photos from the past few weeks, including a couple I rescued from Alex’s phone (aka where photos go to die).

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1. Throwback to May 1st (known as May Day) which is somewhat similar to Labor Day in the States but with more rioting and Molotov cocktails.  From our apartment we watched a few thousand riot cops and protestors parade down our street.  Apparently the May Day protests used to be much more raucous and violent but are now more of a party/rally about whatever people have beef with: anti-capitalism, pro-communism, immigration rights, peace in Korea, etc.

2. It’s rare that we shell out the cash for a nice cocktail so I made sure to soak up every Don Draper moment of this Old Fashioned from Würgeengel in Kreuzberg.  Würgeengel is a really cool spot – good mood lighting, red walls, intimate table settings.

3. American football!  We headed over to the stadium at Mauerpark to watch the Berlin Adler do their best at tossing the ol’ pig skin.  Even though the gameplay was a little lackluster, we had a blast eating hot dogs, drinking beer, and cheering for the home team (who obliterated the other team).

4. This is just a random picture of the sign in Alexanderplatz that, appropriately, was taken by Alex.  No story here, I just liked it.🙂

5. Our awesome friend and former Maid of Honor mailed us a care package full of American goodies!  And a hilarious note explaining each pick.

6. Included in the care package was this super cool necklace featuring a map of the Washington DC area where we used to live!  I love it.

7. Another throwback from a few weeks ago when we were chillin’ at a Starbucks, searching Ebay for bikes*, and realized we were across from Checkpoint Charlie (white building on the right).  The surrounding area is always bustling with tourists visiting the museum and spending all of their Euros at the souvenir shops.

*Note: Yes, this means that we now own bikes.  Which also means that I now ride said bike almost every day.  Me.  I am still a little scared of bikes but the convenience is winning me over.