Best things in life are all unplanned, and no one believes this whole heartedly as much as I do. Especially this time around.
As I had informed you all in my previous blog, we were flying from Santorini to Athens and then were heading back to India after a four-hour halt.
Well, that didn’t happen. As in, I did come to Athens from Santorini but I didn’t end up going back to Delhi. I remember retrieving my bags from the luggage belt in Athens and then walking towards the waiting lounge, when I happened to check a sign board which was flashing sale on flights going to – Sophia, Bulgaria. The prices were dearth cheap and I was amused on how that was possible.
While I was still in my thoughts, it suddenly struck me that I should be making the best of this opportunity. I mean I had always wanted to do this on-spot travelling, and here the opportunity was presenting itself to me on a silver platter. So why not grab it!!! I quickly checked visa requirements, checked flight change options (for return to India) and had a quick word with my loved ones to confirm if everything would be manageable without me. After one hour of doing all this, I made up my mind. I WAS NOT GOING BACK TO INDIA; BULGARIA I AM COMING TO YOU INSTEAD.
Reasons that I chose Bulgaria amongst other options from Athens:
1) Super cheap flight
2) Only a 2.5-hour flight
3) Super Affordable country
4) Safe and convenient to travel around
5) A lot can be covered in a week
After booking my one-way ticket to Sophia which was departing Athens after 5 hours, I sat down to do the detailing of my next week in Bulgaria. I had my flight back to India re-booked for exactly a week later and hence I knew the days I had in hand at most.
My best friend, google was perfect in helping me out my itinerary roughly. I had decided to go by the day and make reservations a day prior for internal travel. My first stop was already decided as it was going to be the city where I fly into i.e. Sophia- the capital city.
I checked for some recommended hostels and found one with great reviews- Hostel Mostel. Sounds funky right 🙂
I checked on the usual things that I always do i.e. The Free walking tour, day trips, must eats, sightseeing etc. There was quite a lot to see and do in Sophia, but I decided that I needed to prioritize as I wanted to see as much as I could in the little time that I had.
So thus I decided that I would ideally spend not more than 3 nights in Sophia, counting tonight as by the time I would reach it would already be around 7 PM.
Soon it was time for me to board(I slept and ate and slept again after my Bulgaria research), and I was off for my little adventure..Yahoo 🙂
The flight was a pleasant one and it was easy for me to find my way to the Airport Subway. I was to take the purple line from Sophia line to Sophia Serdika and then once I reached, I had a 10 minute walk to the hostel. While there were other options like the taxi, bus etc; but I find subways the most convenient and budget friendly option.
The good part was that I found someone right outside the Serdika station who was heading to Hostel Mostel (easy to recognize a fellow backpacker), and we both walked together to our destination. That’s the lovely part about backpacking, you will always find another traveler if you are in the mood of company. And if not, then you are free to roam around on your own.
The hotel check in thanks to hostelworld booking was smooth, and the ambience of the hostel was much quieter than other places I had been to and that could be because Bulgaria still wasn’t a very touristy place. It was still getting there on the tourist map.
I was super tired after a long day, and decided to have a quick bite at a recommended café near the hostel, post which I chilled in the common area for a bit asking people to recommend places to see and things to do. After an hour, I had decided my plan for the next day which was to start with the walking tour, then have lunch at some nice café on way back to hostel and then head out again in the evening for a pub crawl (hidden pubs of Sofia).
With the plan for the next day taken care of, I decided to call it a night.
Next day, I ended up waking earlier than usual and so decided to go for a walk around the hostel before having my breakfast. It was such a good feeling to be out on Sofia streets and have no stress or things to do in mind. This is the best part about travel for me- the feeling of ‘taking it easy’.
After around an hour, I strolled back to the hostel common lobby and grabbed something to eat(complimentary buffet breakfast). Met few other people who were planning to go for the walking tour as well and hence after another hour and a half, we all got together and head towards the meeting point which was the Palace of Justice. The tour company which arranges these walking tours in Sofia is the Free Sofia Tour and is actually currently the only company which does it free of cost (tips are of course expected). Today’s tour though was going to be for 2 hours only, but in this time we were going to be shown almost 20 plus key Sofia attractions. Phewww….Going to be walking a lot today for sure.
We met our tour guide Niki on the staircase leading to the Palace of Justice, and soon were joined by a few more people. By the time we were ready to commence the tour, there were almost 10 of us, which as per me is the perfect number :).
The tour was very interesting as it took us almost across all of Sofia where we were shown :
1. Start: Palace of Justice
2. Sveta Nedelya Church
3. Coat of Arms of Sofia
4. Statue of Sofia
5. Church of St. Petka
6. Largo Square ruins
7. Banya Bashi Mosque
8. Sofia Synagogue
9. Bath / Museum of Sofia
10. Mineral waters
11. Council of Ministers
12. Former Communist Party Headquarters
14. Rotunda of St George
15. City Garden
16. National Theater Ivan Vazov
17. National Gallery (Formal Royal Palace)
18. Russian Church and Military Club
19. St. Sophia Basilica
20. St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral
21. Balkan Bites
Quite a lot to see and explore right? There are also Spanish tours in case interested. Just make sure to check their website which has updated timings and meet up points.
Being the largest city of Bulgaria, there is always a lot of rich history and culture to explore. Now that I had briefly visited so many attractions, I felt even a week would not be enough to explore whole of Sofia.
However, keeping in mind the time constraint I had, for now, this would have to do.
The tour finished by 1 pm, after which I decided to grab lunch before I went back to explore few attractions a bit more than I had seen already in the morning.
I decided to have lunch at this fancy looking street called Vitosha Boulevard, which seemed to be home to fancy boutiques and attractive cafes and restaurants. Sitting in the cafes here, one can also see glimpses of the ice capped Vitosha mountain which was also a popular destination for people visiting Bulgaria. I unfortunately would be skipping it.
I walked up to the Saint Sofia Church after my fresh salad meal and went inside to admire the interiors. Then headed to the Central Sofia Synagogue before deciding that if I needed to regain my energy for the pub crawl in the evening, I had to go rest for a bit. Which I did, but not before I had a nice cup of cappuccino and a slice of cake (of course I would ;)).
I had a good long rest before it was time to head out again for the exciting evening scene. The Sofia Pub Crawl is organized by few companies, however, I chose the New Sofia Pub Crawl purely because of good reviews and positive testimonials. This is a paid tour and per person cost is around 20 BGN, which can be paid online or on spot as well.
The meeting point was Crystal Garden and this time around there were just 8 of us.
Unlike the other pub crawls that I have been to before, the Sofia Pub Crawl was different. The idea of this crawl was to show the tourists the ‘unique and hidden’ night spots of Sofia. There would be no loud music, or dancing crowds. Instead this evening was about exploring how the people during the communist times would find hidden spots to socialize and drink their fear and uncertainty away.
The group was quite diverse with a lot of nationalities present and it was fun to hang out with the bunch.
We started with a local fav joint for pre drinking where the idea was to warm up with the others so that the rest of the evening could be enjoyed in their company. After an hour we head to one of the hostels which had an underground pub scene which quite exciting. We stayed for half an hour here and then head to one of the most amazing places I had been to. A small, hidden house which from outside looked just like all the others, but once you entered inside and got used to the darkness, you could make out that the worn out walls and flooring of this place was what gave this place such an intriguing vibe. The place was converted into a bar a long while back and probably was one of the very few, still surviving bars of the early times.
Apparently in the earlier times, the door was locked from inside and the guests knew they had to maintain silence and talk in the hushed tones so that the communists would not know of the gathering. Tough times I tell you….Can’t even party in peace 😉
Next place we headed to was a similar home converted into a after hours hangout, but was way bigger(multiple floors), and way more peppier because of the artsy walls. The concept of this place was that every artist was welcome to come and paint on the walls for people to explore their talent. In fact it was often a place where artists- painters, musicians, story tellers etc. would meet and discuss and swap life stories. Unfortunately, few years back the original place caught fire and completely was destroyed. However, the love for this place was so great that people all across the world donated enough money for the owners to be able to build it up again.
Each room that you walk into has a different beauty about it. The graffiti on the walls were so expressive and so engaging that I could just sit and admire forever. I had the ruby wine which was out of this world. Yummm.. It was a lovely evening with great conversation, amazing ambience and superb drinks.
It was almost 12 already and I decided to skip the last place of the pub crawl as I had decided to go for a day trip to the Rila Monastery and the 7 Lakes. While most people give one whole day to each of these places, but considering the time I had in hand, I decided to stretch it and had searched for that one tour company which provided transport for covering both these places in a single day.
The pick-up was at 7.30 am from Sofia Central and the first stop was 7 lakes which was around 2 hours away. Once in 7 lakes, we would be given 5 hours to explore the place and the bus would then leave for the Rila monastery at dot 2.30 PM. The instructions were very clear by the guide that in case anyone did not make it back by the stated time, the bus would not wait and own arrangements for return would have to be made (which is super difficult trust me). So there were no ways I was not going to be back in time for sure.
At 9.30 am, I found myself in the queue to buy my return ticket for the lift which costs about 20 leva (10 Euros). I highly recommend taking the lift in case you are short of time and also want to save your energy for the real trek to explore the 7 lakes. Plus the climb is quite steep and when there is an option to avoid it, then why not take it :).
One important point to highlight to all those planning a visit to the 7 lakes is that DO NOT forget to take a rain coat. While the weather may say otherwise, it can rain anytime of the day, anytime of the year in 7 Lakes. I am saying this with so much conviction, because I did not do the exact thing I am asking you to do.
I went without a rain protector, and once I had started my trek (around 20 minutes in), it started pouring like no body’s business.
The tour company had given us a map in the bus which had two route options that one could take when trekking the 7 lakes. One route was almost 5 hours long and the other around 3.5 hours. I obviously decided to follow the shorter path, however as I was just getting warmed up, it started pouring heavily. I thought to keep going and that it would eventually stop, but it didn’t. I mean it rained with vengeance. Just refused to stop.
I finally had to give up half way and turn back because I was soooo cold…I was shivering like non stop. Have never been that cold in my life and I was regretting that I wasn’t carrying anything warm to change into i.e. when I finally made it to a shelter. Gosh, I will never forget that day. Brrrrr….
It took me an hour and a half to come back to the starting point, where there was a big shelter house which also housed a café.I needed hot coffee, or tea or chocolate or anything to warm up my frozen organs. I felt like the white walker from GOT, only I felt cold which they apparently don’t.
Finally I made it to the super crowded café, had 4 cups of hot chocolate, was still shivering cold, tried drying my dripping wet, sticky clothes (unsuccessful at doing that), and then as I peeped out I saw the sun .Shucksss…I had trekked all the way back and as soon as I had come back to the start point, it had stopped raining. Crazy, stupid rain. I was now in no condition to go back and carry on with the rest of my remaining trek and since had only another 1 hour to go till the departure time, decided to dry myself up and walk around the area. Sad that I wasn’t able to explore the whole of the 7 lake area :(, but maybe this gave me a reason to come back again to Bulgaria once this trip was over.
Soon, I found myself heading back towards the ropeway to go back down and to wait for our bus which would now take us to our next destination i.e. The Rila Monastery. By now, I was almost 70% dry, yet I couldn’t wait to get out of these clothes and get into dry ones. But keeping the rest of the itinerary in mind, I knew I had to wait for a good 5-6 hours before that could happen.
Our bus was waiting for us dot on time and soon we found ourselves headed towards our next stop. I was the only unprepared fool in the bus who had not taken a rain coat and hence while others were nice and dry, I sat in the last seat trying to close all the bus windows to save me from the cold wind which was making me shiver like no one’s business. It took us around two hours from 7 lakes to reach the Rila Monastery, which I spent well by catching up on some sleep.
The entry to Rila Monastery is free and the place is always buzzing with tourist because of its rich history and perfect location. Rila Monastery is located at 1300 mtr altitude in the middle of the forests and peaks of Rila mountain.
Apart of being a holy place for the Orthodox church, the monastery is also a spiritual, cultural and religious centre for all Bulgarians.
During the 5 centuries when Bulgaria was under Othoman domination, the Rila monastery has been preserving the christianity and the culture of the country. It has also served as shelter for the persecuted revolutionaries and educational centre for all Bulgarians.
In the centre of the complex yard are located the main church “The Nativity of the Virgin” and the tower of Hrelio.
The monastery is also famous for its library where lots of important Bulgarian written records are kept safe: about 250 manuscripts from XI-XIX century, 9000 old-printed books and others.
The monastery complex has also a history museum with intriguing exposition – a historical collection of 35 000 exponents, rich collections of icons, wood-carvings, cultural and ethnographical items.
What impressed me the most in this museum was the Cross of Rafail. It is made of one whole piece of wood (81-43 centimeters) and it has been named after its creator – monk Rafail. He used fine chisels, small knives and lentils to carve 104 religious stages and 650 small figures. It took him more than 12 years to complete his work and it was done in 1802 when its creator lost his eyesight.
The monastery also caters for people who want to spend a night or two here, however the reservations are limited and usually get closed well in advance because of its popularity. Who would not want to spend time in this peaceful haven, amongst monks and get in touch with their inner soul. While there are residential options, however the guests are not allowed to mingle much with the monks and most of the monk residential floors have restricted entry for the guests.
I was lucky enough to be present at the time of the prayers in the main church and witnessed the ceremony which was beautiful.
After spending an hour and a half here in Rila it was now time to head back to Sofia. It was almost 5 PM, and it would take us almost 3 hours to get back to Sofia.
After a long, adventurous day I was looking forward to going straight to my bed and calling it a day. Tomorrow I had plans to catch a bus to the next city I planned to cover i.e. Plovdiv.
Hope you enjoyed reading about my experiences in Sofia. Keep tuned to know how Plovdiv turned out.