Greetings from Sofia,
I arrived here from Turkey after a death defying border crossing into the country. A half hour after leaving Istanbul it started snowing and the bus soon rolled over at least an inch of new snow. We passed two large truck and trailer rigs that had jack knifed and sat at an awkward angle off the road. Noticing our bus had passenger seat belts, I buckled mine, though no one else did.
The Turkish exit visa formalities could not have been simpler for passengers as the bus conductor collected all our passports or identity cards and while we waited on the warm bus she took them inside the border immigration office for processing. However, Bulgarian entry Immigration must have been created during the years of Communist suspicion as officials made all seventy passengers leave the bus, line up in a single line and wait in the freezing cold while they leisurely took their time granting entry visas and stamping passports, pausing frequently to give some particularly suspicious character a several minutes interrogation.
As border formalities often involve baggage searches by customs officials, I always take my backpack with me whenever required to leave a bus. I stood with that heavy rucksack on my back, ill clothed for such a long frigid ordeal in a thin cotton shirt plus my down vest shivering for nearly the entire hour wait. When it seemed like an impossible struggle doomed to end in failure someone noticed I had lost my balance twice... though catching myself both times before actually falling, and alerted the bus conductor of my apparent inability to endure much more of the cold. Two robust young men and a third to supervise and clear the way, grabbed me by the arms and hustled me over slush and ice to the warm bus while the bus conductor took my passport and handled the formalities. Grateful, I didn't protest the rough man handling. It occurred to me that if the immigration agents had been posted out in the cold and the passengers were allowed to remain warm inside, the process might have gone along much faster!
After we once again were underway I noticed one of the young men who had helped during the crises sat directly across the isle and spoke English. Just twenty one and Bulgarian, Dimitar has already traveled more widely than I had by the age of fifty. He seemed to enjoy the opportunity to practice his English skills and shared some of his knowledge of Bulgarian customs while grilling me on my knowledge of countries he hopes to visit in the near future. In addition to a number of other suggestions, he advised me to try Bulgarian yogurt as it is supposed to be different due to an unusual airborne bacteria used to make it. Later in the hotel, I did try it but noticed hardly any difference. Efforts to take his picture became awkward and I ended up with an unflattering likeness of the guy.
Scheduled to arrive at 20:30, we actually got in at 23:00 and I immediately decided this would be a night when I'd take the first lodge I could find. That turned out to be the Princess Hotel and Casino with a rack rate of 110 Euros, which immediately became an offer of 55 Euros on inquiry or about $74. As my experience with the Princess Hotel in Istanbul had been fairly good, I didn't expect a harsh disappointment... but that is pretty much what I got. Living in Las Vegas and seeing how the casino hotels go out of their way to make a visit to their money machines highly desirable, I expected something similar on this side of the world. But... what a crappy room I got and what a miserable breakfast awaited the next morning.
As I'd had no opportunity to change my Turkish lira into anything spendable, after breakfast I wanted to find a money exchange office. Casinos usually offer such services, but this one treated anyone with a money exchange problem as... well, a problem. After being interrogated like a murder suspect and photographed (though they did not require fingerprinting), they allowed me to enter the casino proper where the cashier's cage was located. My 100 Turkish lira (about 56$) soon became 82 Bulgarian leva. I couldn't wait to get out of that place and immediately started walking back toward the bus station, thinking I might just hop on the next available bus into Serbia. But very few buses are scheduled into Serbia at any hour and the next one wouldn't be leaving until 20:30 that evening.
So, with plenty of time before any bus departure I decided to check out the train connections. Good thing too as there are plenty of trains and they don't threaten border crossing hassles like I experienced getting into the country on a bus. The over night train to Belgrade leaves at 20:30 and a sleeper berth costs 53 leva or about $36.
With the rest of the day to kill before a train departure this Monday I continued my hotel shopping and stumbled on the 70 leva Hotel Sofia Plaza. Finding it to be a fairly decent value I decided to delay the onward journey for at least one more night. The best thing about the Plaza is its closeness to the train station. The worst thing... well, there are several. First, the WiFi only works in the lobby despite assurances it would be available in my room. Next, the duvet is for a baby crib; fortunately I found its mate in the closet and both together covered the full length of my body. Finally, the breakfast buffet is close to the most basic I've had on the entire trip, though the coffee turned out to be pretty good. The amiable receptionist spoke excellent English and tried hard to please, apologizing profusely for all the problems in his hotel.
After breakfast the next morning, Tuesday I worked with my netbook in the lobby until the noon checkout time and then went over to the train station and bought my sleeper ticket on the 20:30 train to Belgrade Serbia for that night. Now with all afternoon to kill and still needing something to eat I walked down to the city center, freezing until I noticed a clothing store with lots of warm jackets on display. Pricing became an issue as there seemed to be no price tags on anything. One of the clerks spoke enough English to help me understand everything in this store was priced 29 leva per kilogram or about $9 a pound. While most things looked new to me, only pre-owned garments stocked the racks. I found a decent coat for about $12. While it will not win any style contests, it definitely makes being out in the freezing cold more tolerable... and makes it easier to pass for a sensible local! As I only had about 15 leva left I rejoiced in learning this second hand store would accept my VISA credit card for payment.
Now protected from the nasty Bulgarian weather I started looking for something to eat that would cost no more than my remaining 15 leva/ about $10 in case I couldn't use a credit card. Spotting a Mac Donald's I dashed in and asked the English speaking manager if he would accept my credit card for payment. "No problem." he replied, so I made my selections and he tried to run the card only to discover a PIN required. Unwilling to provide that information in a foreign land just to get a hamburger, I agreed to pay with my meager remaining leva, but came up about 35 cents short. The manager noting the line forming behind me waved his hand, smirked and quipped: "On the house." and accepted what leva I did have as full payment.
This is my second visit to Sofia, the first being back in 1999 and nothing is familiar. During that earlier trip a huge anti-war rally and march occurred during one of my days in the city. At one point a gaily marching group of protestors enticed me to march with them. I knew they were marching for peace and that is something I easily support anywhere in the world. So, I did join them for a while and added my voice to theirs as they chanted some unfamiliar slogan in Bulgarian. Only later did I discover we had been chanting: "NATO killers. NATO go home." Pondering the reality of what had happened, I felt confused by the unintended political implications.
After just two nights in Sofia Bulgaria I slipped into my berth on the overnight train to Belgrade and tolerated a noisy night of fitful on again off again sleep until our arrival at 05:00 the next morning in Serbia. More when the story continues in Belgrade.
Fred L Bellomy