Autumn: It took two days to ride to Sofia. The first was long one 110 km (68 miles) to a motel on the side of the highway. It was flat, with mountains all around us. The mountains continued to astound us as we got closer and closer.
The roads weren’t too bad, a few were very bumpy due to a road repair technique I’m calling “tar confetti”. I hate it. We arrived at the motel, which was so much more. It had a bar/cafe, a restaurant, a fast food restaurant, a clothing store, a shoe store, a perfume store, and if you couldn’t find what you need among those options, there was a grocery store that had everything. Hunting knives, Mexican beer, lamps, and lots of Flintstones snacks… sounds kinda like a bar Stefon would recommend, but it’s not.
We got an early start the next morning to ride our last 65 km (40 miles) into Sofia. Despite the shorter distance, it was rough day riding. The roads were in much worse condition, with potholes that resembled craters, and water all over the roads from melting snow. Going down a rather steep hill, I accidentally cut in front of Haegan to avoid a pothole, which caused water to spray in his face, and he hit a huge pothole. He got a flat, and then realized the pothole put a big dent in his rim. Not good. He got a new tube in but realized his rim was pretty much ruined. This kinda put a damper on the rest of the day. After a spat getting into the city, we arrived at Hostel Mostel and got settled into our room. We went on the Free Tour of Sofia, and absolutely loved it. Despite the cold weather, the tour was engaging and very well done.
A friend of ours put us in touch with Milena who used to live in the US. We met her after the tour to get dinner and made plans to meet up the next day. The next day was Haegan’s birthday, pretty cool to get to celebrate your birthday in Sofia I think. It would have been a little more fun had the weather been nicer, wet snow had us cold and soaked after a morning of touring around. We were still able to see some really neat sites around Sofia.
Haegan (with bits from Autumn): It was a bit surreal to spend my birthday in Bulgaria, not somewhere I ever would have expected to have a birthday but it was a really good day nonetheless. We some some really cool stuff. Learned a lot, and had a great meal with great people. We first visited the St Nedelya Church which happened to be in the midst of prayer when we entered which was quite cool because Eastern Orthdox churches have a very different feel when full of people and with candles burning all around. After listening for a few minutes we headed out and went to try to go into a church located in and underpass. When we got there we were told that it was closed and would be open the next day. The Mosque was also closed. We were 1 for 3. We decided to head over to the Sofia Synangogue and give that a try. When we got there it was open. The Sofia Synagogue is one of only a few, and the largest at that, Sephardi Synagogues in Eastern Europe. While the outside of the synagogue isn’t all that spectacular, the inside is incredible. Overhead there is a magnificent chandelier and the paint and marble is beautifully detailed.
Next we walked through the “Ladies Market” a large open air fruit and vegetable market. We would have spent a bit longer wandering around the market, but it was about one degree Celsius and snowing. The snow wasn’t sticking, but instead melting once it hit a surface. We were wet and cold, but were determined to see the sites of Sofia. As a last site before the wet snow got the best of us we set out to find the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral which took us a bit longer to find than it should have. By the time we found it we were cold and wet and glad to be inside.
But it was certainly worth the walk. As impressive as it is from the outside the inside is equally so. Almost every surface is covering in colorful paintings of Bible stories or intricate stone carvings. Pictures aren’t allowed inside Orthodox churches, but imagine byzantine style paintings of every saint and every character in the bible. The icons, pictures of the saints, are often adorned with etched metal coverings to protect them from people kissing and touching them in prayer. Overhead huge domes covered in stories support large chandeliers with complex designs. We spent a while just walking around soaking in all the art. After the cathedral we decided we were done with being outside for the day, it was just too gross out. We walked over to the indoor central market to warm up and get lunch. We had more chicken Düner sandwiches, but not even close to as good as Alex Foods.
I even got a little mini cake in celebration. A bit after we finished eating Milena and her husband Boian met us and we drove over to the National Museum of Military History. The museum was fascinating because you can see about 3000 years of military history of the area in one building. They had everything from Thracian artifacts to modern weapons and a little bit of everything in between. Our great tour guide walked us through the many stages Bulgaria has been though, which is a lot. Because of the strategic location of the country it was a part of many empires and home to a lot of war. Boian knows a lot about the history of Bulgaria and was able to answer a lot of questions and point out some really cool artifacts in the museum. What we found most interesting was to hear about world history from an entirely new perspective. World War I and II were especially neat to hear about because we got to see a side that would likely never be taught in a school in the US.
After the museum we went to a traditional Bulgarian dinner for my birthday. We started off with a salad full of all sorts of different stuff.
Fresh fruits and veggies are a big part of Bulgarian food, and although it’s not the best time of year for produce everything was really good. However Milena and Boian said we need to try a Bulgarian tomato in season as it will be the best we have ever had. We also had some great flatbread drenched in butter and garlic which we really liked. For dinner I got something that roughly translated to “beef for the connoisseur” and Autumn got a chicken skewer that came on what was basically a sword. All the food was incredible and we had a great evening talking with our great hosts, hopefully they can visit us in the states soon 🙂
The next day didn’t involve nearly as much sightseeing or exciting things but was very good for other reasons. We had breakfast with our new friends from the hostel, Jannik and Frauke from Germany, and worked on the blog for most of the morning. In the afternoon we set out to find a bike shop and see about making my rear wheel a little bit better. The rim was really bent and had a big flat spot in it causing it to not be very round anymore. I was hoping to true it a bit and improve it slightly to get some more mileage out of it while I figured out how to get a new rim. After the first two shops being a bust we found our way to Fix to Ride, which looked promising but didn’t appear to be open. We took a guess that they were out to lunch and went to do the same ourselves. After we got lunch the door was open! We went in and talked to George who was happy to let me use some tools and try to fix it. I got it a little better but realized it was really a hopeless cause. When I inquired about picking up some tubes George said they didn’t have them but could order them for the next day. That got me thinking. He said he could get a rim for the next day too so we started looking for one that would work. After searching for a while with no luck, all seemed out of stock, he went in the back and pulled out a rim that he had. It was the right diameter and would work! He said it would be no problem for me to hang out and rebuild my wheel. So while Autumn walked around I spent most of the afternoon rebuilding my wheel. I don’t know that it is the best wheel I have ever built, but it is pretty good and should work just fine for a long time. On top of all that George charged me just 35 leva for the new rim and using his space for 3 hours, I was very grateful. We ordered some tubes and a few other bits for the next day and headed back to the hostel. We spent the rest of the afternoon hanging around the hostel with a few women from the US travelling through Sofia from Istanbul: Jill, Harimah, and Olivia. Later we had free pasta and beer at the hostel for dinner with Jannik, Frauke, and Salam, who grew up in Morocco. We decided to go out to the nightly pub crawl with everyone from the hostel at 10. The first bar was the “American” themed Road 66 which was kind of funny. It had all sorts of random “American” decor that didn’t really go together. In celebration of my birthday we did some tequila shots which we had to be taught about how to do. We met some other cool people from the hostel and heard about peoples travels past and present. Autumn and I made it to the second bar but didn’t stay long. It was 1:00 am and we were exhausted. The next day consisted of seeing some more sights with people from the hostel. We went out with Jannik, Frauke, Salam, and Colin who is from the UK. The weather could not have been more different from the rainy snow a few days before. The sun was out it was warm and everyone was loving it. We went to the mosque, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral again and a little Roman church built in the 4th century, the little one in the underpass was still closed. The 4th century church is surrounded by old ruins and was really cool to see. The inside was fairly simple but it was striking to be in a church that people have been worshiping at for over a thousand years.
Jannik and Frauke had a train to catch so we said goodbye and then the rest of us headed to lunch. We found a great little spot with a patio in the sun, which was really all we cared about. We had a great view of the mountains and the food was really good as well.
Our favorite part about staying at hostels has been the people you meet there. Everyone seems to be on some sort of incredible trip or has stories to tell. The conversation is never dull. That night we went out to a bar with some more new friends: Emeline, Etienne, and Titouan from France who are studying in Istanbul and Zoe and Lucy from Germany who were headed to Turkey. We talked about all sorts of interesting stuff and had a great time. We didn’t stay out too late as we had a long day planned the next day, towards the Rila Monastary, but that’s a whole nother story.