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!

In the Throes of Apartment Hunting

Finding the perfect apartment in any city can be difficult. It’s nearly impossible to find “the perfect apartment” that we all envision. Where are the spacious but cozy rooms always brightly lit by sunbeams streaming through crystal clear windows that flow into a large kitchen with a gas range and enough space for a breakfast table, easily accessible from the bedroom with a wide closet, across from the bathroom with storage, down the hall from the already equipped washer (I wouldn’t dare to dream of a dryer), situated near a bustling street with cafes and shops, that we dream of?
We got lucky last time: we found an apartment that was perfect despite it’s flaws in a small city that we loved. So maybe we’re a little spoiled, but still, apartment hunting in Berlin is notoriously difficult for new residents. The challenges of renting in Berlin are in part due to the steady population growth since the 90s and also to the very “German-ness” of the system.

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Rents in Berlin are lower than in other major German cities and lower than most other European capitals. However, the influx of new residents over the past few years, especially those from other EU countries and North America, is being blamed for causing a rise in the average rental costs.  Kreuzberg (where we are staying for the next few weeks) used to be the ‘up and coming’ neighborhood. It was a hub for ‘artsy-types’ and low rents but the real Bohemians have since moved on to more Southern neighborhoods after the German equivalent of yuppies started moving in. Someone told us the other day that the flow of people into a Berlin neighborhood goes like this: Artists > Students > Yuppies > Families.
Once the former artists or students start having kids the area is definitely not cool anymore and those seeking a more ‘fringe’ lifestyle must move on. The result is that rents in Berlin are cheap-er than most places but not as cheap as the longtime citizens remember. A 1 bedroom apartment ranges between about 700-850 Euro ($950-1100). Not too bad, right? Except that there are fees out the wazoo! To rent an apartment, most landlords require 3 things: the first month’s rent, 2-3 months of rent as a security deposit, and a realtor’s fee of ~2 monthly rents. Sometimes you might get lucky and find a flat rented out by the owner directly which eliminates the last fee, but that’s somewhat rare. So, in order to begin a new lease (which are typically open-ended) for an apartment that costs 1000 Euro/month you need approximately 6,000 Euro to fork over all at once. That is a potential problem for obvious reasons.

Another issue with renting as a Berlin newcomer are the many applications, references, credit checks, etc. that the landlords generally require. One realtor who I spoke with told me that because Alex has only been working here for a few weeks we would need to pay the entire first year of rent up-front. What. I don’t think that policy is necessarily normal, it could have been specific to that real estate company, but many Berlin landlords are real sticklers about their requirements. Most want you to provide proof of income (in Germany) for the last 3 months, your credit score through a Germany-specific company, a letter from your last landlord stating that you’re all paid up, and of course your passport/visa.  If you have been living in Germany for a while those requirements are fine but as new citizens here we just don’t have those documents available. There is some method to this madness – we have been told that in Germany the laws regarding rentals make it much more difficult to evict tenants than in most other countries. I’m guessing that this is especially true in Berlin because it seems like hardly anyone actually owns their apartment. Which doesn’t make sense to us land-owning-lovin’ Americans, but whatever… The result is that the deposits and fees for rentals are super high, making is less risky for the landlords.
Fine, I get it, but what’s a new expat to do?

What I discovered after some Googling and blog reading is that many new expats start with a long-ish term sublet. Subletting here seems to come with significantly fewer fees and required documents. Plus, having a furnished apartment when you first move is awesome. Sublet rents are about the same as a normal lease, furnished flats cost a little more, but the fees are generally much, much lower.  The norm seems to be a deposit of only one month’s rent and the realtor commissions, if applicable, are lower as well.  So this is the route we are now exploring.
We have a few appointments set up this week to check out some sublets so hopefully something will finally work out! I’m optimistic that as long as we put aside that ideal image in our minds (at least for now) we can find something to suit our needs for the next few months.
In the summer or fall we can restart our search for a long-term apartment with renewed spirits, bank accounts & documents. Who knows, maybe “the perfect apartment” is just around the corner…