Sofia

Thursday 2nd November

Regular readers of this blog may be either frustrated that I have not posted any entries recently. Or thy may think I got lost in Sofia and have never come back. But no no, all is well, and I’ve just been a bit busy. You know how it is…

So back to Sofia…

When I got off the train I was not really prepared for the crowd of people around the door all offering me help. Most were wearing badges that bore their photo and the words “Official Information”. Very convincing. Thinking that I could do without their help I bounded off down the subway into the quite overbearing and immense communist era station complex. Its enormous hall is decorated along its length on one side by a twisted steel fresco depicting eagles and stars and all sorts of Soviet fun. Accidently going to the wrong ticket counter (I was immediately buying my ticket to leave – not because I had already written off Sofia but because I was only meant to be staying one night there and I didn’t want to miss the train that evening) I was clearly identified as a lost tourist and was pounced upon.

Fair enough, I was a bit lost, and my new-found friend insisted on walking me to the international tickets booth, then to the currency exchange place when it turned out the ticket booth didn’t take plastic, then to his mate when it turned out that his mate offered a significantly better exchange rate than the official one, then underground to the locker room where I was shown a locker to put my stuff in, guarded by another of his mates. And then I was asked to give them money for their assistance. Aware that we were alone in this underground space, I didn’t really feel like I had much choice, but it is true that they had helped me find the things I needed in half the time it would otherwise have taken me. I agreed to give them some money but only upstairs as I needed some change (when I needed a one bulgarian monitary unit piece for the locker and only had a fiver, they had taken my fiver, given me the one and pocketed the difference!)

With so little time and no guide book, I reckoned upon doing little more than wander around the town centre and warming myself with regular doses of food and coffee. The centre is a twenty minute from the station along a bleak suburban boulevard. When the mobile phone shops gave way to important looking buildings with flags atop, I was reassured that at least I was heading in the right direction. Feeling the cold, I dipped into a shopping centre for lack of any other shelter. Though Bulgaria is not quite yet in the E.U., the western chains of shops are already well installed, from Miss Sixty through to Timberland and Zara, all of which was quite depressing to see especially when the products are being sold at Parisian prices despite the poverty I had seen coming into town. I quickly left.

Giving up the main streets, I found a friendly and, best of all, warm looking bar selling food. I was feeling low on account of the weather, the hassle at the station and maybe because of a touch of loneliness – nothing however that a beer and an enormous pizza for 1.50€ couldn’t fix. Recharged and re-inspired, I set off again into the snow that was falling thick but not yet settling. I walked through the beautiful houses of the embassy district, I resisted the temptation to buy an accordion from a man in the street, and sat for a while in the serene confines of the basilica.

In a leafy neighborhood bordering the centre I found a shop selling scarfs. Using my best Bulgarian (a language which is closely related to Serbo- Croat) I was able to ask for a scarf that matched my orange shoe laces. The shopkeepers were surprised to hear that it was colder in Sofia than it had been in Belgrade. That scarf however made all the difference, I was toasting!

When I did venture to take my camera out, it was in front of the beautiful state theatre. I was immediately pounced upon by a man who said he had seen me a few blocks back and had been following me to see if I could sell him any currency. It took my some time to shake him off. As night started to fall, I went back to the station, all the time paranoid that my friends from that morning had kindly taken my backpack off of my hands.

Of course, when I got to my locker, all my worldly goods were where I had left them. I later encountered the only tourists that I would see in Bulgaria: a group of Americans and Canadians who hadn’t even planned to come to Sofia. They had been on a night train from Istanbul to Zagreb and had been turfed off at the Macedonian border because they didn’t have the right visas. They had had to spend the night in a prison cell before being put on a train to Bulgaria where they were allowed without a visa.

My last act in as a tourist in Sofia was to buy a bottle of water, to understand the price as it was said to me in Bulgarian, and to manage to use up the last of the tiny coins rattling around in my pocket.