For us, one of the exciting parts of travel is the research and planning that it takes to make each trip a reality. Normally our trips are regional, and rarely do we just pick one destination, so in the early stages it’s thrilling to think that everything is possible.
But obviously, seeing everything isn’t possible, so we must whittle our itinerary to determine where we’re actually going to visit.
Our priorities, preferences and allotted time determine which locations make it through the sieve, and how much time we spend in each place. Some cities become secondary or fall by the wayside altogether, and on our recent trip to Bulgaria, the capital Sofia fell into our “visit but not for very long” category.
As a regional hub, whether you’re on a bus, train, or plane, it’s a near guarantee that one of the spokes of your travel wheel will take you through Sofia. But when we put Sofia and Plovdiv in the balance, we made the decision to spend most of our time in a smaller, more relaxed city rather than the larger, busier capital.
Don’t get us wrong, Sofia has an incredible variety of attractions and something for all tastes. It’s a modern, vibrant city and its combination of onion-domed and Byzantine churches, Ottoman mosques, and communist relics, make it an interesting east-meets-west destination. We enjoyed both our short stays there, but the timing meant that we spent most of our time wandering the city without a planned agenda. And as it happened, this was an excellent way to explore.
The travel gods were smiling on us, when we picked the Boulevard Maria Luiza for our first walk. It’s one of Sofia’s main streets and the amazing concentration of sights scattered along its length make it a tourist epicenter. In addition to the sights and sounds of normal city life, there’s the 450-year old Banya Bashi mosque, a large, attractive turn of the century synagogue, market hall and Turkish Baths, as well as a couple of Orthodox cathedrals, city monuments, and the excavated ruins of the 8th Century BCE city of Serdica. The cluster of sights along this one-kilometer stretch of road is perfect for short-of-time visitors.
Sofia is a modern city which strives to focus attention on its past, but there were a few glaring examples of the city’s faded glory as well. Smack dab in the center of the attractive Maria Luiza Boulevard stands a couple of what were once grand buildings that are now derelict and have truly gone to seed. We’re always intrigued by buildings like this and wonder what their story is.
Then there are the people of Sofia: talented buskers, bench-hoarding people watchers, somber street sweepers, alfresco feasters, flea market entrepreneurs, and colorfully coifed beauties.
And Sofia had a few dashes of quirkiness thrown in that made us smile. A display of fridge magnets outside a tourist shop had us scratching our heads. We didn’t make it to any of Bulgaria’s beaches, but we’re fairly certain that palm trees are in short supply. Also, in what must be the best repurposing of empty beer bottles in history, this unique courtyard wall garden won the prize.
Most travel guides make helpful recommendations for how many days to allot for a certain destination. However, our philosophy is that we see what we see, so we don’t necessarily think that way. For instance, Sofia has a number of excellent museums that we didn’t have time to visit but we’re not worried, because there’s always next time. Our final word on Sofia is that it’s an interesting city with lots to see and do and we’ll always be happy that we visited. It can be done in two days or two weeks, and if your travels take you to Bulgaria, you owe it to yourself to stop in.
James & Terri
1. by Dennis Jarvis via Wikimedia Commons
This is a very timely post for us. With vacation time from work a big variable in our travel planning an itinerary ahead becomes a big job. We look forward to a day to have flexibility to spend more or less time as we go along. Always delighted to have your suggestions to file away for future. 🙂
Thanks Sue. When we travel, we always have a plan in place, but whenever possible, we leave in the flexibility to make changes on the fly. We’ve done two six-month RTWs, and the first was totally planned with flights, dates, places, etc. The second was planned as we went along with nothing firm except for a general itinerary. They were both wonderful trips, but far and away, the second was more rewarding. We could make unplanned stops (“Hey, we’re flying right over Sri Lanka, let’s stop for a couple of weeks.”) and changes that made the trip so much better. It takes a bit more work on the road – and good wifi connections – but it works great. Something to keep in mind. ~James
James the second trip sounds like a dream come true. That flexibility is something we very much look forward to.
I’ve never really thought about Sofia but now I’m thinking Sofia could be a good destination for a weekend get away… we also like places were you can just wander and enjoy whatever comes up!
Vilma, Sofia would make a wonderful weekender. There really is a lot to do, and as an added bonus, it’s one of the cheapest places to travel in Europe. I’m not sure who the cheapo airlines are that fly there, but couple this with nice, cheap hotels, and it it would be a fun and inexpensive place to visit. ~James
This the city of my grandfathers family. Family members still live there.
The research and planning? Someone gets it! This is what makes a traveler.
Cindy, as your relatives have probably told you, Bulgaria has had a long, and sometimes difficult history. Like other places in the Balkans, it’s a cultural crossroads that’s folded many of these different influences into the modern culture. We really enjoyed our time there, and would return. I hope that you get to visit your family there from time to time. ~James
“8th Century BCE city of Serdica” … is that the same as 8th century BC? Searches online left me confused, and unknowing! 🙂
Your posts on Bulgaria just might loosen the Velcro that makes me keep returning to Italy.
Yes, Yvonne, BC and BCE are different terms, but mean the same thing. As you know, BC means before the birth of Christ. In an effort to remove the apparent religious overtones, academics changed this to BCE, which means “Before Common Era.” Depending on one’s POV, some agree with these changes and others don’t. In the meantime, there’s no right or wrong and it’s up to the writer. ~James
Great post. I’ve been thinking of visiting Sofia and your photos are so beautiful, now I definitely want to!
Thanks Danni. A long weekend would be an easy, inexpensive hop from the UK. It really is a nice place, and is amazingly cheap with lots to see and do – even if you’re short on time. I hope you can make it. ~James
I definitely think you made the right choice between Sofia and Plovdiv. Your travel passion really shown through in your posts about Plovdiv. I love the “beer garden”!
Looking back, we agree with you Laura. We thought Plovdiv would be fun and interesting, but it far exceeded our expectations. It also helped that by the time we got there, we’d been on the road for a while, and it was just the laid-back atmosphere that we needed. ~James
Great photos – my favorite was the Public Mineral baths – but the wall garden from wine bottles was a fabulous idea that I’m going to pass along to a few do-it-yourselfers in my family. We also prefer traveling and staying in smaller cities and I loved your posts from Plovdiv but you’ve shown some great reasons why Sofia should be seen as well! Anita
Thanks Anita. The Mineral Baths building was fabulous and I could have done a post on it alone. It sits on a leafy green plaza with an attractive fountain in the middle, which is a excellent place to people watch and picnic. Also, the building had some intricate ceramic work that was wonderful. And interestingly, it’s still a working bath which is open to the public. ~James
Never seen a bottle garden before!
Is that not cool Pam? Terri’s an avid gardener and outdoor decorator, so she latched right onto this idea. But as the gardener’s assistant, I can see that this project wouldn’t be as easy to pull off as it looks. But the results are very cool. ~James
Yes the bottles would have to drain. Looks neat though!
Oh, if only we had enough time and money to spend in each and every city we wanted to see! Love your selection of pics here — from the derelict buildings to the colorful fridge magnets. I find the overlap of old and new in each of the cities we visit quite interesting. And, although I prefer to look at old stuff, I’m a purchaser of many new souvenirs and, of course, the newest in cooking! Such an interesting post!
We didn’t visit Bucharest Rusha, but if it’s like the rest of the Balkans, everything is relatively inexpensive. So that will make you trip a bit easier. We saw a few of these derelict buildings which were in very nice areas, and it made us wonder. There has to be a story, and it would be interesting to know. There has to be more to it than someone died, left it to the family, and they can’t afford to fix it up. I wonder if there are ownership issues that go back to the Communist days? ~James
There could definitely be ownership issues. And even if the same family owns a building, there’s no guarantee of upkeep!
The architectural style and adornment of the past is always so interesting, as modern new buildings often lack character and amazingness (how about that word!!) The refrigerator magnets and your comment were funny – I’ll bet they have a shortage of toucans too! Great post.
Marilyn, many of the relatively recent buildings in Sofia are from the Communist era, which means they are big, blocky, and they don’t age well. They weren’t much for individualization and character in those days. Luckily, there are lots of pre-Communist buildings that have some style. And BTW, we aren’t much for fridge magnets, but I could hardly resist the Bulgarian palm trees and toucans. 🙂 ~James
Thanks Virginia for reblogging our post on Sofia. It’s such an interesting city, and your reblog will help more people get the word. ~James @ Gallivance.net
This post is just what I need now as I haven’t got any travel plan in the near future yet. I learned about Sofia many years ago when I was in secondary school, and its name was so beautiful to my ears as well as mysterious. Now it’s hard to not include Bulgaria when I travel in Eastern Europe one day.
Bama, a few years ago we realized that the entirety of Eastern Europe was a big blank spot in our travel map. We’d been to Prague, but nowhere else. So for the past few years we’ve been focusing our efforts in both the northern and southern parts of Eastern Europe. Even though geographers make it a part of Europe, with its history, it really is very different than Western Europe, and I’m sure that you’d enjoy it. ~James
Lovely pictures! I really want to go to Sofia. Was supposed to go last year, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. Hopefully it will some day 🙂
Thanks for the comment Caroline and for dropping by the blog. Sorry about missing Sofia, but hopefully you can pull it off soon. We didn’t have much time there, but after our short visit, we would definitely return, not only to Sofia, but to explore other parts of Bulgaria as well. The city doesn’t get much attention, but it should. ~James
The beer bottle won in my book as well! I love the creativity. I sometimes wonder if a non-planned trip would benefit from the flip of a coin. You come to a major intersection and flip a coin in determining which direction to go. It might be an interesting experiment James and Terri…? 🙂 –Curt
The beer bottle idea is a great one Curt, but looking at the quality of the job, it really is quite meticulously done, and I’m sure that it’s beyond the skill level of a pudknocker like me. It’s funny about the coin flip. We’ve done some of this in the US, but abroad its a bit more difficult. On our last RTW we made most of our decisions on the fly, but even that took planning, what with security, visas, etc. Something to think about though. ~James
Do you find security playing a major part in your decision making, James? –Curt
Curt, in most places no. But, for instance on, our trip to the Balkans border crossings and the movement of the refugees was something that we definitely had to take into account. We didn’t have any problems, but we had to plan to make that so. ~James
Lovely post! I noticed the electric wires heading into that derelict building, so someone is doing something in there. Wouldn’t you love to get inside and see what that old, ornate exterior holds?
You’re right Susan. These old, neglected houses in nice neighborhoods are so mysterious. As I said to someone else: There has to be a story, and it would be interesting to know. There has to be more to it than someone died, left it to the family, and they can’t afford to fix it up. I wonder if there are ownership issues that go back to the Communist days? ~James
Or even before the Communist days, as ‘ownership’ is largely collective (or governmental) in Communist countries, right? I have no idea how long ago that was, but your building looks like it could have been around through several regimes…
I love your photos and thanks for sharing.
Thanks much Leslie. Wandering aimlessly works most of the time, and Sofia is a great example. ~James
Impressive architecture. Wow. I can sit on a bench and just stare for a while. Can’t believe the minute detail in the construction. Marvelous photos. Thank you for sharing. 😀
Funny you should mention that Tess, because we spent a bit of time on those benches people watching and enjoying a nice picnic. ~James
I love the statue of St. Sofia. Sometimes the derelict buildings make the best pictures. I also wonder what their story is and often make one up. Another place to put on the list.
It sounds like you have some writer’s experience with creepy old houses Darlene. Have there been any in your books? ~James
There will be one or two in the book I’m working on right now as a matter of fact!
You heard it here folks! 🙂
Did Sofia remind you at all of Sarajevo? For some reason your photos made me think of that city. We did not make it to Sofia on our Eastern Europe jaunt but hope to next time, at least for a short visit.
I hadn’t thought of it Lexie, but I can see the similarity. However, the biggest difference is that I didn’t see a single bullet-pocked, bombed out building in Sofia, but tht wasn’t the case in Sarajevo. Of course, I came to Sarajevo from Mostar, Bosnia so I probably had a heightened awareness of war scars. ~James
Terri & James, having twice been to Sofia, I enjoyed your perspective on the city. The first time I was there, my trip just happened to coincide with Saints Cyril and Methodius’ Day, a public holiday in Bulgaria. The locals translated that for me as ‘Cyrillic Aphabet Day’, since the brothers created one of the earliest Slavic alphabets. I spotted locals putting bouquets of flowers at the foot of the duo’s statue in Sofia, and I bought a bag of Cyrillic alphabet pasta as a souvenir for my young cousins, thinking it would make fun alphabet soup. 🙂
I returned to Sofia a few years later, this time with Shawn, and we also only spent a short time there. Like you, we preferred using smaller Plovdiv, and then Kalofer, as our bases of operations. Still, though, Sofia has a great energy about it, and I’d love to return.
Also, enjoyed the beer bottle planters! That would be a fun idea for a brewery’s courtyard.
Bulgarians take the Cyril brothers seriously Tricia. I was reading up on the origins of Cyrillic, and happened onto a forum discussion. Someone said that it was Russian, and a person from Bulgaria got into a heated exchange of how it was definitely NOT Russian but had originated in Bulgaria. It was one of those funny exchanges where the participants got way too serious about the topic. Like you, we enjoyed Sofia, and next time we’ll visit a few of the museums and some of the ruins around town. We enjoyed our entire trip to Bulgaria and probably will return eventually. I haven’t heard of Kalofer, but will definitely check it out. Thanks for the info. Terri tells me that you posted about it, so if you don’t mind, would you please send the link to your post. Thx. ~James
James, we hadn’t heard of Kalofer either, and that off-the-radar nature of the town made it all the more enjoyable for us. 🙂 I’m happy to share the link – beware, it’s a long one! http://triciaannemitchell.com/2015/06/07/bulgaria-travel-holiday-in-kalofer/
I forgot, we also spent time in Veliko Tarnovo, Varna and Sozòpol too. All three offered new experiences, of course, but Kalofer’s nature of being a small and quiet place made it the most “authentic” for us.
It sounds like we plan travels in a very similar fashion. There is the *wish* list of places and things to do, but then it eventually gets whittled down to a workable schedule with compromises made along the way.
I’m rather partial to architecture with rounded features and there certainly is a lot of that in your photos. However, what really struck me are the buildings that look like they’ve been layered – the synagogue and Public Minerals Bath. They are sooo different!
Joanne, another thing that I didn’t mention that goes into our planning is logistics and transport. We’re big believers in public transport and years ago we decided that rental cars weren’t worth the hassle. So where we stay and how we move around is something we take into account whe we plan. We try to see sights that interest us, but if it’s too much of a hassle to get there, we give it a miss. And for the buildings, I really enjoy the mineral baths as well. Apparently, the mineral springs are one of the primary reasons that Sofia was located where it is, and this building demonstrates how important they were. ~James
We’re still very addicted to having a rental car when we travel from location to location – largely because we are usually travelling with a bike box and they aren’t fun to lug around on public transportation.
Within a city though, I prefer local transport, a bike, or walking. It’s the best way to get up *close and personal* with a location 🙂
Oooooo I do love the statue of St Sofia! It sounds as if you make your travel plans the same way we do. Sofia looks interesting but I suspect we too would opt for more time in other places. We usually allow one week for a city, and we never would have thought it but Mexico City for instance turn out to be fabulous and definitely worth the time there. Some other places not so much, but then we just us the time to chill.
Alison, like you, when possible, we try to stay in place for a week. Over the years we’ve discovered that moving around is tiring and can be stressful, so we prefer to get an apartment for a week, and use it as a base to explore the area. Also, if a city turns out to not have as much to see as we expected, we don’t mind taking a few days off to, as you say, to just chill. As you know, when you’re in it for the long haul, if you try to be a tourist all the time, it’s a formula for burnout. ~James
As usual, your photos are magnificent.
Thanks so much for your kind words Shelley. As we said, Sofia had lots to see, and in the short time we were there, we were snappin’ away. ~James
Like you I sometimes struggle to know what to keep and what to leave out on any trip. It even happens on walks on a regular basis but at least I know I can go back and explore further when it’s somewhere relatively local.
Marie, if you’re like we are, over the years we’ve developed a pretty reliable barometer for what we want to see. Mostly we try to focus on what’s unique about the place and it’s culture as well as our long-term favorites like antiquities. But our general philosophy is that we see what we see and it’s quality over quantity. ~James
What a joy it was to look at Your photos and read Your report. Thank You.
Thanks Sartenada. Sofia was a nice surprise, and because we only had a short time there, it was helpful that the sights we saw were close together. ~James