Sofia (Bulgaria Part 2)

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Written September 15.

Back in Sofia, Boyan and I went to dinner with his dad at a wonderful restaurant called Mediterraneo. Sitting in the ambient lighted courtyard, I ordered a mashed potato soup with quail egg, veal scaloppini and tiramisu. The veal was unbelievably tender and flavorful and the soup unlike anything I’d had before. We left the late dinner to meet up with some of Boyan’s friends for drinks in the park and then headed to a house party, where I’m pretty sure a beautiful Bulgarian girl was hitting on me. Sorry ladies.

The Ivan Vazov National Theatre

The Ivan Vazov National Theatre

We woke up late on Saturday morning to a fresh brunch at home with Boyan’s dad – smoked salmon, cream cheese, bread, tomatoes, onion, capers and yogurt with honey and fresh berries. We walked into the city center, grabbing some gelato and walking into one of Sofia’s famous churches and catching a two-hour walking tour in the evening. In Sofia, there is a large open square that is cornered by four houses of worship – The Banya Bashi Mosque, a synagogue that is the biggest Sephardic temple in Europe (Bulgaria managed to save all of its Jews during the Holocaust, most of whom fled when communism came after World War II), the Sveta Nedelya Eastern Orthodox church and the Sveti Yosif Catholic Cathedral. The tour guide called it the Square of Tolerance:

“We’re just a stones throw away from each other, but we don’t throw stones.”

Boyan and I met up with his dad and grandparents at a typical Bulgarian restaurant for dinner after the tour. We all shared some unusual fried bean clusters with soy sauce and garlic (Boyan said you can only really get them at this restaurant and they aren’t typical in Bulgaria) and a tomato/cucumber/cheese salad (very typical), and I ordered a traditional tripe soup and stuffed pork breast. Boyan’s grandparents, who are both scientists (one a professor, one a researcher), spend a month in Georgia each year, his grandfather a frequent guest professor at UGA, and visit their daughter in New York frequently. They made me feel right at home, making sure to keep me going back for food until I was stuffed. It’s always comforting to be around grandparents!

Not sure what I was looking at...

Not sure what I was looking at…

Later that night, Boyan and I met up with some of his friends to go to a club underneath Sofia’s library called “Once Upon a Time Biblioteka.” It was a really fun night – maybe a little too fun – and I ended up going home a few hours before Boyan did. Sometimes you just have to throw in the towel.

We slept in again on Sunday, and Boyan’s dad once again welcomed us to the day with a tasty brunch, this time some Bulgarian flaky pastries with cheese or fruit or nuts in them and some of the juiciest, reddest watermelon I’ve ever eaten. Ironically, Bulgaria’s best and most well known produce originated in America (tomatoes and watermelon) but beats most of the stuff you get at home (okay except Arkansas tomatoes and watermelon are kind of incredible but you know what I mean).

After getting some logistical things taken care of (printing tickets, blogging, uploading photos), Boyan and I left to go shopping at one of his favorite stores. Boyan had lent me a shirt the night before (I only have two button-downs), and I ended up buying the same one. It’s a blue floral shirt, and I do love floral (my other button-downs are floral too…). We grabbed gelato once again and then met up with Boyan’s friend Kosta for homemade sangria (made with homemade wine) and an oversized harvest cookie at a cool bar/coffee shop called The Apartment, which is literally in an old apartment. I actually thought we were going back to Boyan’s place until we got there and I realized that The Apartment was not actually his apartment.

Stumbled across a wedding in one of Sofia's churches!

Stumbled across a wedding in one of Sofia’s churches!

Boyan and I left The Apartment to head to his godmother’s apartment (see what I did there?) for dinner. Her husband is Colombian, so the dishes fell within some unknown exotic but delicious category – grilled peppers (both spicy and juicy red), meatballs, a cold eggplant sauce, homemade bread and fresh raspberries and Bulgarian plums (almost like oversized grapes) for dessert.

After dinner, we met back up with Kosta and another one of Boyan’s friends, Petar, at a chill and cheap bar. We ordered cocktails and some tasty spicy tomato vodka shots with olives (10 for 20 lev, which is about $12). I’ve gained a bit of a fondness for green olives during my trip, and the shots seemed more like hors d’ourves than anything. We left the bar and drove (Petar didn’t drink because he was driving – don’t worry) around Sofia looking for an open kebab shop. It made me feel like I was home, riding around in a car in the middle of the night looking for a late night snack. We stopped at Petar’s apartment for tea, music and conversation and got home at 6:30 in the morning. Just nine hours after and here I am, writing on a plane to Athens, Greece. I can see the coast below me from the window as I type.

It’s always weird getting to a new place, not knowing anything about what it will be like, who I will meet, what I will do. I’m planning on island hopping here, but many of Greece’s islands don’t have a large hostel culture. Ideally I will meet someone who can rent a room with me at my hostel in Athens or Ios, which happens to have a *hopefully* pretty nice hostel. Will get back to you on that one.

View of Athens from my plane window

View of Athens from my plane window

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The Rila Mountains – Bulgaria

Six of the Seven Rila Lakes

Six of the Seven Rila Lakes

Landing at the Sofia airport in the evening, I was greeted by my old flatmate Boyan, whom I had not seen in nearly two years. As with the rest of my old flat (which we generally refer to as C6, our block letter and flat number), it felt like old times immediately. Although I have seen almost all of my old flatmates already this summer, I am anxious to spend time with the whole group together again when I head back to England in October.

Boyan and I took one of Bulgaria’s extremely cheap taxis from the airport to his apartment, and hungry after a long day of travel, we ate the dinner his grandmother had sent for us – stuffed peppers, ripe and juicy tomatoes (Bulgaria has some of the best), beans, olives, feta cheese (another Bulgarian staple) and fresh peaches for dessert. We left his apartment to grab drinks and smoke hookah at a couple of outdoor bars before heading in for the night.

On the Rocks

On Thursday morning, a taxi picked us up from the apartment and drove us an hour and a half to a ski lift headed up to the Seven Rila Lakes. As would become a pattern on any transportation in Bulgaria, I slept the entire ride there (regardless of my long legs being consistently cramped). The ski lift went so far up that it took probably 20 minutes to reach the lodge at the top.

Bulgaria’s Seven Rila Lakes are – you guessed it – seven lakes nestled high in the Rila Mountains. Named after their shapes, including “The Eyeglass,” “The Kidney” and “The Eye,” the lakes sit progressively higher in the mountains, connected by creeks and waterfalls. Craggy peaks rise around the lakes and a few flat plains, one of which is surrounded by a semi-circle of inclines on one side and the open sky and clouds on the other. This round field is known for its energies, and a ritualistic religious group called the Great White Brotherhood (not the KKK) holds a ceremony there once a year. The energy field had a pile of white rocks in the middle with more rocks symmetrically circled around it like a dartboard. Boyan and I stood in the middle for a while, arms wide open.

Waterfall

The five-hour hike up and back to the Seven Rila Lakes was exhausting, hiking up past each lake to a peak where we could look over our path and the lakes below, but it was one of the high points of my trip. While traveling, I find myself consistently attracted to natural beauty over anything else – my favorite places are always the most beautiful. Though we were tired, at each stage of the mostly uphill trek I found myself wanting to see more and from a higher viewpoint until we were all the way at the top. Worth it.

Boyan and me on a peak overlooking the lakes

Boyan and me on a peak overlooking the lakes

We got a little bit lost on our way down, opting to take the more confusing lower path instead of the original path that was considerably steeper at some parts but flat for much of the journey. It turned into a little adventure, with us mistaking a house for the lodge with the ski lifts. Just when we thought we were almost at the end (we were hoping to spend part of the evening at one of Bulgaria’s natural hot spring baths), we saw the real lodge off in the distance. It’s hard to get good vantage points with mountain peaks jutting out all around you.

After a long, well-deserved sit, my rubbery-tired legs stumbled off the lift and onto the ground at the base of the mountain. It was all I could do not to fall off the lift after the intense leg workout and sudden rest, and of course I slept the entire (and probably stunning) taxi ride to a small town where we would spend the night. We sat down for dinner at a nearby restaurant and went to bed early.

The Rila Monastery

The Rila Monastery

We had to get up relatively early on Friday to catch a series of three busses and vans to the Rila Monastery. Most of the busses were extremely old (think communist era), but in a way that gave them and the journey some major character. I slept pretty much the entire way there. Three hours later, we arrived at the beautiful Eastern Orthodox monastery, where mountains rose up beyond the walls surrounding the monks’ housing, the church and an ancient tower. Although the Rila Monastery has been around since the 10th century, it was destroyed in the 19th century and mostly rebuilt aside from its stone tower.

Inside the church at the Rila Monastery (photos not technically allowed...)

Inside the church at the Rila Monastery (photos not technically allowed…)

We spent two hours exploring the monastery – the scenic paintings on the inside of the church; the all-stone, narrow-staired tower; the courtyard – and the area outside, where we bought mini-donuts with powdered sugar and jam and sat on a drooping creek. Our one-stop trip home would be easier than getting there, and surprise, I slept the whole ride, even thinking that my iPhone was replaying a song when I’d really just slept through the entire album.

Eggshell painted by hand by Rila monks.

Eggshell painted by hand by Rila monks.