3 Days in Sofia

The strippers didn’t greet us with a Bulgarian equivalent of ‘Yaaas Queen’

When people ask us why we chose Sofia for our spontaneous getaway, we have 2 reasons. 1) It’s cheap. 2) We like Sofia Vegara. And that’s it. We knew precisely 0 about Bulgaria and its capital. Even after we booked the flights it didn’t really occur to us to research it. This meant we arrived on the Sunday with no idea what to expect. We may have predicted Eastern Europeans, cheap food and a few cathedrals. But I don’t think we’d have thought much about strip clubs, bucket hats, anti-corruption protests and a spa day.

The plane journey was pretty standard and as we walked out into the foyer of Sofia’s airport, we searched for a map to find out how to get to our airbnb. This was the first time it had dawned on any of us that Bulgaria doesn’t use the same alphabet. As we stared blankly at a jumble of symbols, it was as if a neon sign was pointing at us with the words ‘Clueless Tourists.’ Instantly a shuttle bus dude and a taxi driver ran up to us, eager to herd us towards their vehicles. We chose the taxi guy (attempting to ignore his lack of teeth and the prominence of his one gold gleaming canine). Yet as he led us out and away from the normal taxi rank, things began to seem a bit dodge. He continued to walk away from the main car park and out to a smaller parking area, telling us the whole time ‘it’s fine it’s good it’s good.’ When we saw his car (which just seemed to be painted yellow rather than an actual taxi), we hurriedly grabbed our cases and made our excuses about getting the metro instead. He then watched us proceed to walk right over to his competitors in the normal taxi rank. Awkward.

No, thank you. 
Our taxi drive through Sofia was our first real sight of what was on offer in the city. Because the flights were so cheap, we hadn’t really thought about how far Sofia really is. It isn’t just another city in Western Europe. This isn’t France or Rome. Near Turkey and Russia, it has a strange mix of Ottoman style temples, neo-Byzantine facades and many, many, cheap Communist era mouldy apartment blocks.

It seemed as if our airbnb would be another of these crumbly blocks of cement and orange plaster. As we were lead up to our flat by our host, Neli, there were even some cockroaches to celebrate our arrival. But inside, Neli has managed to really make the most of the location. I’m not sure I would have picked quite so many different faux marble tiles combined with quite so many gold handles for the décor, but overall the flat was homey and comfy and just what we needed on our short stay. Nels (officially The Airbnbae) was adorably helpful, showing us a list of things we can check out.

Pretty much our first few hours in Sofia
We spent a ridiculously long time lying on the bed and eating. Something about being on holiday made us slightly fascinated with our cameras and close ups of each other faces which filled up a good three hours. As we had no idea what there was in Sofia, we had no To Do List and no rush to really get anywhere. There was some karaoke and a lot of human jenga before we eventually convinced ourselves to get outside.

One of our many food-related destinations 

The flat was just a walk from some of the big attractions in Sofia but we soon got distracted by food. Another symptom of being on holiday- we seemed to spend ¾ of the time either looking for, buying, or consuming food. Okay, don’t judge, it’s a good way to get to know the city, alright? We now knew how far the McDonalds was from the Happy Grill and how far the Ice Cream Shop was from Spaghetti Bar (Yeah, not the most exotic cuisine, I’ll admit). It wasn’t just eating though. We wedged in a smidge of culture by visiting the tourist shop. Although we hadn’t actually seen any sights by this point, so we couldn’t really justify buying a lot of merch. So instead, we made the leap and got some highly fashionable Sofia Bucket Hats which are of course worth it as they will complete every outfit back home in England.

Catwalk ready. 

See how fashionable they are?

 And can you really experience Bulgaria without visiting a strip club? The Sofia Guide online seems to think not and says there is ‘not a man who is not amazed by the beauty of the Bulgarian women.’ It helpfully tells me I can visit with my ‘business partners and friends.’ Good to know. I decided not to put the offer out on my LinkedIn profile and opted just to go with friends. I think we may have looked a bit like fish out of water, with our bucket hats (which we removed out of respect for the strippers) and my bright yellow bumbag. Yeah we may have been a tad out of our depth, as the lady on the door told us ‘not to be scared’ as we went in. Once we realised getting alcohol was too expensive we just got lemonade, but as my eyes adjusted to gloom, it all began to feel a tad grimey, and suddenly I wasn’t that thirsty. I think before we went we’d assumed there was an element of body positivity, of women owning their lives and earning money however they wanted. Female Power yay. But Emmeline Pankhurst’s March on Downing Street, Fetish Bar is not. The strippers didn’t greet us with a Bulgarian equivalent of ‘Yaaas Queen,’ and just seemed to constantly be rolling their eyes with boredom. I’m calling them strippers rather than dancers as, unfortunately, wobbling around in heels, just wearing your knickers, doesn’t really count as a dance move. They didn’t seem oppressed or anything, just pretty disdainful that anyone would pay to see them walking up and down like they’re waiting for a bus (just minus a few key items of clothing). After about 10 minutes, we just wanted to give them all nice fluffy jumpers and chat to them about other hobbies and their job prospects. 

Do you wanna borrow my jumper?
Okay so our first day wasn’t extremely cultural (although some would argue Fetish Bar is cultural in some way). So for our second day we put in a bit more effort and went on a free walking tour. Free Sofia Tour is a company name that is pretty self explanatory. Our tour was run by the lovely Tommy who gave out sweets if people answered questions. It was a really great way to see the place and gave us a lot more of an understanding of the history and geography of Sofia, even if we were a tad confused by the statue of Christian Saint Sofia. She was a  Christian saint who was martyrd when she was murdered by the Pagans for hr beliefs. So, tactfully, the Bulgarian government decided to dress her in a skin tight black dress and plonk a few Pagan symbols on her arms. As you do.

Cleavage and an owl: Very saintly. 

We managed to get to see the Government buildings, the National Theatre, and the famous Alexander Nevksy Cathedral. Completed in 1912, the Bulgarian Orthodox Cathedral was built in neo-Byzantine style, with stunning onyx, gold and marble domes. It is the perfect example of a building you just couldn’t find in the West. The paintings inside are also a testament to these differences, this many religious portraits (particularly the huge painting of God on the ceiling) would never have survived unblemished after the Reformation in England.

Obligatory tourist photo 

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral 

Tommy also told us of a hotel that has been built on the ruins of Serdica (the ancient name of Sofia) and the remains of an amphitheatre that may have been a similar size to the Coliseum. There are bizarrely no street signs pointing towards this pretty interesting attraction but we finally turn up at the Arena di Serdica hot and sweaty. It’s a pretty luxurious hotel, particularly compared with some of the dirtier areas of Sofia we’ve seen, so we feel a bit awkward stumbling in and asking about the ruins. The bottom floor is built around it, but in quite a strange way, as if it is more a design feature than a major archaeological find. It’s not even mentioned in the website’s main description online. They also hold functions on top of the ruins which is a bit strange.

The ruins on the bottom floor are now a function area 
Anyway we are distracted by the signs for a spa and decide to buy Zoe a chocolate massage for her birthday (and, no, it turns out, she didn’t eat any, which seems to be like torture, coz how can you sit there and not lick yourself!?) In fact, we fell in love with the Spa and booked in treatments for all of us for the next morning. See, this is the thing about Sofia. We had no expectations of what we wanted to see which means we could just spontaneously decide to do random things like get yogurt massaged into our faces (and, yes, turns out, Sasha did eat some and it was very much not edible).

To eat or not to eat that is the question 
Speaking of spontaneity, we also bought some hair dye and Dina helpfully volunteered to dye my hair brown. We sat on the kitchen floor of our airbnb with my hands out like a Buddah statue trying to catch any brown blobs that might fall. I kept on feeling the dye on my neck but Di assured me it wasn’t. In the end, Dina accomplished pretty great coverage of all my hair… along with my ears, neck, forehead, back and arms.

"Don't worry I'm being careful" 

 We then brought in Zoe’s birthday in Bar Friday –thanks to Tommy’s recommendation. It was pretty edgy, with a photogenic plant wall and actually had some other young people in it (so what else do you want in a bar?). I ordered a Bloody Mary because it sounded gory, but it transpired it was just an edgy alcoholic gazpacho. Who knew? This brings me to another feature of our trip: making all the locals hate us. I don’t know how we managed it, but somehow whenever we ordered anywhere or bought anything (from spa treatments to double vodka tonics) we made them hate us…

Don't think they want us back tbh 

By the third day, we’d got a bit addicted to getting taxis. There must be a Bulgarian National Secret that taxis are ridiculously cheap. I mean how is it even possible to buy petrol when they charge around £6 for a half an hour drive through central Sofia? It allowed us to easily get to the Museum of Socialist Art which is quite far out from where we were. In quite a business area, it is a bizarre sight. An area of grass is covered with Soviet era statues. I think this guy Lenin was a bit of a big deal. This was another thing we just wouldn’t be able to really experience in the West, the enormity and power of these statues. Each one has such a clear agenda of imposing the might of the regime and the crucial need for labour. This is contrasted really interestingly with paintings inside depicting executions under the Communist regime. As the Soviet era spanned quite a number of decades, there is a real interesting mix of painting techniques and themes. On the taxi drive back, we met Tony who was the keenest Bulgarian so far, excited to tell us about everything there was to see in the county. He took quite a liking to Sasha as she said she knew grime and they bonded over Skepta. Unfortunately, we declined his offer to do spliff together…

The Museum of Socialist Art is pretty stunning to see 

Our final big cultural sight was the Sofia Synagogue. There is a special balance in the city that has homed so many religions. In one square there is the Synagogue to one side, the Banya Bashi mosque to the other, and Sveta Nedelya Church to another, all three of them still open as functioning temples. The Synagogue is the largest in Eastern Europe and is a beautiful Sephardi synagogue completed in a Moorish design. An elderly volunteer told us the fascinating history of Jewish survival in Bulgaria during WW2. By this point Zoe was pretty much dying from hayfever, which the acoustics of the Synagogue had made clear to everyone within a mile’s radius, so we head back.

The beautiful Synagogue 

Just when we thought Sofia had stopped with its random events, we walked towards our last dinner, and we met a protest. Admittedly, we got a bit overexcited and took badges and yelled supportive things, before we’d even worked out what the protest was about. They said it was ‘anti-corruption’ which sounds alright, although would anyone really have a pro-corruption rally?
Yay Protest 

Comrade Dina

And thus completed our trip. From strippers to spas, from religion to rallies, we felt we’d surveyed what Sofia had to offer. I think we’d all recommend going to a city you know nothing about and deciding on the itinerary whilst you’re there. It left us open to explore more and find out more naturally rather than just through trip advisor. It also helped not having 4G as we had to get to know the roads without a GPS (well, until we decided to get cabs everywhere). So we left Sofia with a new found knowledge of strip clubs and Soviet art, new statement Bucket Hats and –well, for me at least- dyed brown blobs all over my upper body.

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