Sofia 2021: Part 1
Back at Skopje bus terminal. Crying babies on bus back from Ohrid. 5 ½ hours to get to Sofia. Should arrive at the hostel around 11pm. Crying baby in the station too. Only snack food available at kiosks. Looking forward to this day being done. Running out of podcasts. Can’t sleep properly again.
I can’t tell if it’s the sleep deprivation or the hangover that’s making me feel this way, it might even be both at once. The number of snorers that have come and gone in my dorms is astounding and is single-handedly making me consider going home or paying outrageous prices for a hotel room. Also, I’ve apparently been ripped off for the bed I’m sleeping in, so whichever way I’d settle it’d be a bitter experience. Right now, I just need to focus on getting up to date without dying in the process.
First, let’s talk about the night of my arrival in Bulgaria. By 8pm, I was on the last minibus from Skopje to Sofia. The route took us over the mountains, where a thunderstorm started up. The sky darkened prematurely as the clouds swelled overhead, and after a few flashes of light, the thunder cracked, and the heavens opened. It was a dramatic arrival to the Bulgarian border. Thankfully the rain paused long enough for us to get processed. I was worried that I didn’t have all the correct papers (as I always am when travelling, but especially with covid restrictions), so when they asked me to “come with (them)” my heart skipped a beat. They took me to a testing booth, where a woman looked at my vaccination certificate and said I was free to enter. They repeated this for everyone else in the group but took much longer with the stranger who had just joined us at the Macedonian side of the border. He’d come all the way from Sofia only to be denied entry and had waited for someone passing through to take him all the way back. Can you imagine the stress that must’ve caused him? Poor guy.
Once all was said and done, we were on our way again, which is when the storm returned with increased intensity. Lightning forked down to the ground in the middle distance, and now there was fog on the road as well as we descended. There weren’t any streetlights either, and I wasn’t entirely sure it was even a main road, though it must have been. Between the weather, the darkness, and the mysterious stranger picked up on the border, it had all the makings of a good Gothic novel premise. Very spooky.
We arrived in Sofia an hour later than planned, and I left my headphones in the taxi when I stepped out, which was a tragic loss for all involved. I made a dash for the doorway next to the metal shutter and punched in the keycode to get inside. I was hugely surprised by what was inside. At the back of a private courtyard was a huge cabin, its façade covered in ivy. The lights inside were as inviting as anything I’d ever seen, not that I could see much through the water in my eyes. The setup is extremely funky for a hostel, unique from anywhere I’d ever stayed at before. The rooms were all on the first floor, with the ground floor reserved for an open kitchen and common room. Someone was playing CS: GO on one of the desktops they had. A few others were lounging about on some bean bags, and one or two more were busy chatting in the kitchen with their drinks. I got my room and bed number and was looking forward to some decent sleep after such a long day. But boy oh boy, you’d best believe that didn’t happen! And in style! A guy with a newly broken nose (the result of a fistfight with a member of staff) jumped out of his top bunk all night for some reason, landing with a heavy thud on the wooden floor. Some speculated that he did it deliberately because he enjoyed pissing people off. Of everyone in that room, his snoring was the most pronounced. Below me was (and still is) a rather surly, rather large man whose snoring was slightly less intense than the other guy, but then at 4am the cats outside began to fight each other! I think I slept maybe two hours in total.
The man below me, when I came down from my bunk in the morning, accused me of being the one who kept jumping out of bed all night, and remained adamant it had been me despite several others in the room assuring him it wasn’t me.
“You were very loud last night, my friend. You jumped onto the floor all night. Very disrespectful.”
“That wasn’t me -”
“Yes it was, I heard you.”
“It really wasn’t me.” I was too tired to passionately defend myself despite my innocence, and not in the frame of mind for confrontation.
“It was, you were in and out of bed all night!”
“It wasn’t him, it was this guy,” said a man with a terrific moustache in my defence. That seemed to quiet him, but I’ve managed to piss him off three times in one day, so he’s very cold towards me. I just care that he snores too loudly. Later on, when I was looking for somewhere to hang my wet towel, I asked him if I could use one of the four hooks on the bedpost he was using for jackets and jeans. He shut the bedcurtain on me! He looked at me in the face and shut the curtain! Then he exploded out of bed about five minutes later to tell me about how everything there was for his private use! It was his! The pieces of string strung across the window as makeshift washing line were for his use only! Buy your own!
Woah, woah, woah, let’s calm down a little bit, I think. “That’s why I asked if any were available.”
“And now I know, thank you for telling me.”
“You’re welcome!” And he nearly ripped the curtain off the bed so fast did he close it again. Fuck me, making enemies before I’ve even got dressed.
After that delightful start it was around lunchtime, and I hadn’t had a proper meal in about two days. Travelling doesn’t leave much room for sit-down meals. I met an Egyptian Cardiologist, Mina, who kindly agreed to join me in my quest to find food. We found a brunch place not too far from the hostel, and after ordering our food we were able to introduce ourselves a little better.
“It’s ok if you want to say Meena, I know my name is hard for people to say.” Mina seems so easy to say that I can’t imagine anyone having trouble with it, but people clearly do. In what seems to be a running theme, the one thing I ordered they did not have. Then again, I was so hungry that I ate whatever I was given anyway, which in this case was an egg so overcooked you could deal it like a playing card. It’s the danger of these hipster joints; the looks can be exactly as they appear.
Mina, who turns out is an incredibly generous person, almost uncomfortably so for someone who hates to owe anyone anything, offered to take me on a tour of the area, which I tried to appreciate despite the massive sleep-deprivation headache I had going. She was very patient with me throughout, and even bought us some dried fruit from one of the many fruit and nut shops around the city. I’ve never seen so many of them, but now I wish there were this many everywhere. Ginger is always a good choice. Oh man, I’m tired. I keep yawning. Shouldn’t have stayed out so late last night. Think I might have a nap before finishing this.
That was an awesome idea Alex, good job. The first place we dropped into was the church of Saint Aleksander Nevzki, modelled off the Hagia Sophia, and with beautiful frescos covering almost every space. It was built as a memorial to the people who fought for Bulgaria’s independence. The lighting was dim inside, but if you looked up to the dome you could see where some paint had melted away, and a trickle of white dripped down over a saint’s head. After taking a few pictures I was asked if I had paid to do so, so when I replied ‘no’, Mina and I left. She wanted to show me a park that had a specific water fountain that was meant to have healing properties. All the fountains in Sofia are fed by water from the mountains, or underground reservoirs. Certainly, the city isn’t skimping on fountains; they’re everywhere, all of them throwing spray high into the sky. In the end, the one we found after much searching was tiny, but multi-levelled, so her and I could both drink without having to stoop or tiptoe respectively. People love hearing about your drinking habits, great content Alex. Talk about how you were wearing odd socks and Mina commented on it too, you incredible entertainer.
Mina desperately tried to convince me to rent a scooter to go to the next park, but I was really too tired to even risk it. She was clearly disappointed by that. Not to worry though, the walk was only about twenty minutes. Can’t say it was particularly exciting, but once the light rain started, I was fiercely reminded of home. The smell of damp leaves and a slight coldness from the rainwater instantly makes me think of home. Mina began to talk about the guy she likes at the hostel blushed when I teased her about it. Finally, we decided we were getting too wet to stay outside, so we went back to the hostel via the wrong route and had to sneak through a mechanic’s workshop to reach the right side of the buildings.
In the evening, I had a fantastic time with a Venetian called Alessandro, who decided to spend his final night by taking me out for some traditional Bulgarian food. I don’t know quite what it was, but good food and good company made it one of the most enjoyable nights I’ve had for a while. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed any nights on this trip; far from it in fact. This was a different sort of enjoyment, a kind when two people can spend a whole evening talking to each other without struggling to find an excuse to continue. The bottle of red wine may also have contributed to that. The way the food was described on the menu was less than specific, but was told with unexpected flair, with each dish deserving of its own background that altogether told much more than just the food’s contents. It created context for the dishes. It told stories about how it was their grandfather’s favourite dish, or how the children would help make this particular one. It was quite unique. The interior of the restaurant was decorated in what I assume to be the classic Bulgarian style, though perhaps exaggerated for the sake of the theme. I appreciated how much wood there was.
After dinner, which I cannot stress enough how much I enjoyed (it made me miss Venice a lot too), Alessandro and I decided to find a bar for one more drink before home. I finally staggered back home at 5am, exhausted and happy after about three hours of dancing at three different bars and clubs, only to realise I’d left my jumper at the gay bar. People even came up to me in the night to ask for a dance and came up to me to tell me how good of a dancer I was! It honestly made my night. It was amazing to see how quickly a club comes to life once people start dancing. It was like a snowball down a hill. Also, I think I witnessed an attempted mugging? Fortunately, someone came by to save him and chased the mugger off. That was scary.
Going out now, so catch up with you later!