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!

Easter in Bamberg & Leipzig

Beer, food & parks.
That pretty much sums up our vacation last weekend to Bamberg & Leipzig!  As I said in my post the other day, Alex had four days off work for Easter so we took advantage of it by escaping the hustle and bustle of Berlin for the countryside.

First we headed down to Bamberg, my new favorite Bavarian town (not that I’ve been to many, but still).  Bamberg is a popular destination for beer lovers and tourists, who enjoy it’s ‘romantic’ super-Bavarian appearance.  The atmosphere of the town reminded me of our beloved Old Town Alexandria; both have that certain charm that comes with old-fashioned buildings, small cafés and beautiful waterways.  And lots of ice cream!
The Old Town of Bamberg is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of it’s medieval appearance which has been preserved throughout the years and World Wars.  It is really cool to see an authentic Bavarian town rather than those that were destroyed and later rebuilt.  Bamberg is also home to a large cathedral, a sprawling abbey, and an old castle perched atop the highest hill.
Due to intermittent rain showers on Friday the town was pretty dead.  The people who ‘braved’ the rain, ourselves included, huddled inside the nine breweries to keep dry (or should I say wet?).  Bamberg is known for having great beer, especially for its Rauchbier which has a smoky flavor reminiscent of bacon!  We first enjoyed Rauchbier from a bottle here in Berlin and the delicious flavor concreted our decision to travel to Bamberg.  Large beers & large plates of food kept us warm and occupied until the sun returned in full force on Saturday – bringing a lot of tourists with it.
We were eager to enjoy the sunshine while it lasted so we spent most of the day finding new parts of the town we hadn’t seen the previous day.  We spent some time walking along the river, admiring the row houses known as “Little Venice”, exploring the Natural History Museum, and taking a mini-hike up the hill to the Altenburg castle.

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After two wonderful days in Bamberg we moved on to Leipzig, a city about two hours from Berlin.  The people who drove us, and our Air BnB host, thought it was funny that we were going to Leipzig.  We likened it to someone stopping in Richmond or Pittsburgh for a “vacation”.  Although the locals might not think there is much to see in Leipzig, there are a few main sights that are worth seeing.
We may have gotten lucky, though.  Because we were there on Easter Sunday there were events going on like an outdoor music concert in the park and a medieval festival downtown.  One of Leipzig’s main tourist attractions is the very large Völkerschlachtdenkmal (Battle of the Nations monument) which was built to commemorate a victorious battle against Napoleon in Leipzig in 1813.  Another popular spot is the Leipzig Zoological Garden which we didn’t go to because of the threat of thunder storms (which never came) but I would love to go back and see it someday!  It’s supposed to be really awesome and has the world’s largest primate exhibit.  There are also a few famous churches in Leipzig where Bach once worked and where his remains are laid.
We aren’t really into seeing “touristy stuff” though so we were happy when the guy who drove us told us about an open-air music venue outside of the downtown area.  There we discovered why we had been told that Leipzig is going to be the “new Berlin”.  The ‘venue’ looked more like a backyard frat party – complete with a large Corona umbrella, a hammock, and ping-pong – but the relaxed atmosphere made for a fun time.  We spent a few hours there chatting with our driver and his friends until I got tired, which was right about the time a new slew of people were arriving (approx. 1 am).  Germans, they love the night life.

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Although Bamberg and Leipzig are quite different places they made a good combination for a short Spring vacation, and I would gladly revisit either of them!  It was nice to get away for a bit but we were happy to get back to Berlin where the beer might all be Pils, and the streets littered with cigarettes, but no one ever calls it boring.

Click below to see many more pictures from Bamberg & Leipzig!

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By the Rhine in Mainz

Happy belated St. Patrick’s Day!  Obviously it’s not a big holiday here in Germany but this past weekend we ventured down south to the charming city of Mainz (pronounced: Mine-z) for a combo birthday/St. Patty’s day party.  Alex’s good friend from college has been living in Germany for a few years and is currently living in Mainz, a small city near Frankfurt.  Even though the 7 hour bus ride was excruciating, we had a blast celebrating with him and exploring in Mainz!

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Although Mainz is not in what we might call the “Deep South” of Germany it has a very different look & feel from Berlin.  To be honest, I would probably rather live in a small city like Mainz than in Berlin, but you gotta go where the jobs are!  Outside of the main tourist area Mainz is very suburban.  On our way to the train station we walked through a few large parks that were surrounded by clusters of quaint houses and streets (with hills!) with beautifully reconstructed buildings.  I should mention that Mainz was heavily, heavily bombed during WWII and since then most of the city has been reconstructed to look as it once did, rather than modernized.  I think this contributes to the old-fashioned feel of the city, especially when compared to Berlin.  I really love visiting these smaller cities in Germany – they seem so authentically German.  I have heard from Germans that Berlin isn’t very representative of the country but I suppose the same is true about most big cities in the world.  They tend to have their own unique culture that differs from those in the ‘burbs or countryside.

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Even though it was cold & windy outside we spent most of the day wandering around the city.  Mainz has a pretty awesome city center with lots of shopping opportunities; there are multiple small malls & gallerias with European faves like Zara and H&M.  Alex took advantage of these and got a new “Euro” sweatshirt & jacket – the North Face is nice but it shouts “I’m American!!”
Mainz also has great opportunities for thrift shoppers!  Every weekend there is a huge flea market along the Rhine.  Despite the crappy weather there were probably a hundred booths set up along the river walk selling used clothing, toys, knick-knacks, etc.  In addition to the flea market there is also a large food market surrounding the 1,000 year old cathedral of St. Martin.  We enjoyed some deeeelicious wildflower cheese, sausages & wine from a local vineyard (Mainz is known for its wines).

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After wandering around some more we spent the evening (and very early morning hours) celebrating our friend’s birthday with his local friends.  Yep, we hung out with real Germans for the first time since our move!  They were all super friendly and (luckily) spoke English very well.  It wasn’t much of a St. Patty’s Day party but a few of them did wear green!  We had long conversations about life in Berlin, the Cold War and ‘when will Germany start drinking IPAs?!’  On the topic of food, one of the guests made a Mainz-area favorite party dish – Spundekäs!  It is basically French onion dip with cream cheese and, man oh man, is it amazing!  Especially with traditional soft pretzels.  I am not a huge fan of German food but this is one we will definitely be recreating.

We had a great time in Mainz, despite the weather and long bus rides, and I can’t wait for our next outing in Germany!
Click below to see more photos from our visit to Mainz!  (Sorry ’bout the quality – our iPhones couldn’t overcome the bleak weather!)

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