This week, while awaiting the conclusion of the semester’s finals, my Fulbright colleague Rich Raymond and I took a trip to Sofia, Bulgaria. To avoid possible border issues with Serbia, we went by bus via Skopje, where we spent a night going and coming due to the bus schedules. This left us only one night in Sofia but the majority of two days to explore the city.
Although this capital city is quite large (15th largest in the EU), most of its historic and touristy sites are located in close proximity downtown. We walked everywhere despite having temps in the 90s both days. What I will remember most about Sofia are the churches: so beautiful and grand…but no match for the mountainous scenery near the border.
Knowing a little history will enrich a visit to Sofia and its historical sites. The Bulgarians enjoy a special tie with Russia for having “liberated” them from the Ottomans. Also, Bulgaria was Communist until 1989 and today often is labeled a “mafia state.” To what degree this label is accurate, I do not know.
Bus trip from Skopje to Sofia: less than $40 round trip and appr. 5 hours ride time (including 1/2 hour at the borders). Bulgaria, like Greece, is an hour ahead (GMT +2). N.B. Buses are the way to travel in the Balkans: trains are too slow or don’t exist and planes usually are too expensive with airports too remote. Unfortunately, the buses take a long time to cover short distances, and I have discovered that uncomfortable buses (bad or no a/c, broken chairs, overcrowded) far outnumber the reasonably comfortable; however, all buses seem stocked with interesting folks, many of whom–tourists and locals–will chat with you.
I have posted my pics on Facebook:
Tips for Sofia
- remember the time zone change (GMT +2)
- remember the currency is the LEVA (2 BGN = 1€)
- wearing shorts in church is okay when there aren’t services
- most churches and museums will not allow photographs
- neither Sofia nor Skopje are big tourist draws; consequently…
- there seemed to be fewer restaurants and coffeehouses than other cities we’ve visited
- there seemed to be fewer locals who speak English
- a simple, free map from your hotel will suffice
- 1 day is probably enough to see most of the city; 2 days would be more than enough
- you can take a tram from the bus and train stations to downtown