That’s right… Sofia, Bulgaria! Why the heck would we go there? Why not? If you’ve been keeping track, you’d know that we’ve been working our way east and south on our quest to drive from Europe to Asia. Considering the ‘Zoundsmobile was back in Transylvania awaiting its second transmission rebuild on this continent, our plan was in severe danger. But we weren’t going to let anything stop our steady drive… err… crawl… to Constantinople, and Sofia stood in our way.
What makes Eastern Europe so interesting is that visiting it is a bit like hitting 88mph in a DeLorean—you really do go back in time. The further and further east you travel, the closer and closer you get to the moaning ghosts of the Evil Empire. You see it not only in the structures and layout of a city, but also in the way people act—particularly those who lived and grew up in the middle of the last century. While we can certainly say that the Sofia of the 21st century isn’t the same as the Sofia of the 20th century, the physical scars are still evident throughout.
At this point, we’re usually raving about the incredible buildings in the town center or fawning over some new style of architecture we’d never seen before, and we’re debating the merits of adding sugar to mayonnaise and the wisdom of making Shawarma out of Pork (we’re looking at you, Cluj). But not so in Sofia.
Instead, we came to this city hearing warnings about scams, thefts, and general shadiness. Our research told us to beware as soon as we cleared customs. We needed to head straight to a taxi booth in the terminal where, after stating our destination, we’d receive a cab number which would be waiting outside. In no case were we to talk to any official-looking gentlemen standing by the customs exit, wearing a badge around his neck, offering to lead us to a waiting ride. Surely that was an exaggeration wrapped in an anecdote. Nope. The trickster with the “official” badge pounced upon us exactly as the warnings said he would. With some deft maneuvering of our carry-ons involving a head-fake, a spin move, and no less than two pivots, we danced our way to the proper booth, ready to resume our scam-free travels.
We were told that cab drivers in Sofia could be exceptionally shady (we’re generally warned about shady cab drivers in all cities). The very first cab driver we used, the one assigned to us by the airport booth, drove us to our destination with no issues, but then argumentatively claimed not to have change for the 20 Leva notes we had pulled from the airport ATM (a well-known scam in taxi world). At 19 Leva, we wouldn’t have batted an eyelash, but as the fare was 23 Leva, that didn’t fly. So Top Down Nidal waited on the sidewalk, in the rain, with the luggage, while Top Down Ella ran around, in the dark, looking for a store to make change. As it was late, and we weren’t on a major street, Crabby The Cabby was tended his exact fare 10 minutes later, sans tip, and we didn’t take cabs for the rest of our trip—except for the trip back to the airport (which, we should note, was bereft of any shadiness).
None of that mattered once we arrived at our rental.
After arriving at our digs, it became abundantly clear how far your dollar flies in Sofia. Our lodging turned out to be a bit less than Spartan for the sums requested. We totally splurged, and at 80 bucks a night, ended up staying at Biggie Smalls’ downtown Sophia apartment. The piano was a bit out of tune, but the Pininfarina designed commode and bidet made up for it; they are, quite literally, the Ferraris of toilet seats. Two balconies, three bedrooms… the only thing missing was a pair of suits, one white leather, the other black satin, so we could host a Matrix party.
The only thing missing is the I.V. so Top Down Nidal wont actually have to lift the glass.
But man does not live on décor alone. Time to get some eats! Utilizing our super-power of random wandering, we stumbled into the “Women’s Market,” so called because, traditionally, only women sold goods, while the men toiled in the field (or drank rakia, whichever was the case). Our measure of reasonable prices in such a situation is the stalwart watermelon. On this fine day in Sofia, we snagged a 5 kilogram melon (that’s 11 pounds for you ‘Muricans) for the insanely low price of just over two US dollars. The same melon in NYC would have cost us about 8 bucks (and not been nearly as sweet). Sofia is hereby declared officially awesome!
**Sofia shopping note: When in the Women’s Market, don’t grope the produce. Such action is frowned upon, and old Bulgarian ladies will interrupt their shopping routing to (quietly) give you the business.
In most cases, you point at what you want and indicate how many kilos you want. And do buy by the kilo. Produce is so cheap it’s ridiculous. For purchasing a single apple at a time, be a boring human being and head to the air-conditioned, automatic-door-having, credit-card-accepting supermarket.
Prepared food, while not as cheap as raw produce, was still a massive bargain, and tasted fantastic to boot. We had come expecting worse, considering the slow decline in quality the further east from Prague we headed, but we ended up being quite pleasantly surprised by Sofia’s adoption of bits and pieces of various cuisines, from Turkish to sushi! Yes, the sushi in Sofia was fantastically good, and we didn’t die from worms… AND it cost way less that it does anywhere else we’ve been. Don’t be afraid to partake.
Any time you’re offered soup served in a bowl of bread, order it!!!
So the food: cheap and really damn good. The accommodations: cheap and great. But what are we doing here? Well, what have we done during the rest of our trip? We hit the clubs, we visit the museums, and we sightsee the hell out of the architecture. Journey onwards!
Obviously, the first thing to do after getting some food is to put on the old sneaks and hit the streets, camera in hand, advertising that we’re tourists. It’s what we do, and generally isn’t any trouble if you just own it (and remember that your Nikon is basically a 5 pound metal brick, perfect for rearranging the orbital socket of any ruffian who asks to borrow your wallet on a long-term basis). Still, we’ve never had any trouble from anyone other than the pushy Turkish carpet salesman, but your mileage may vary.
Back on topic: The streets of Sofia are… beat up. They’re old. They need renovation. There are some wonderful buildings of the sort you’d see in Romania, Hungary, or elsewhere with a taste for art nouveau… but most of them are just beat to hell! As opposed to Oradea, where we saw renovations in progress, Sofia looked as if it had been cursed to languish for eternity. It’s as if those wanting to renovate the city wake up every morning, look out their windows, decide that it’s just too much work, and go right back to bed.
The only buildings which looked well-kept were public structures such as government buildings, universities, churches, shopping malls, and the higher-end hotels. Everything built for private use looked as if it were falling apart. There’s a certain aesthetic to shabby chic, but this went beyond that. It was quite sad, really, considering the potential. Our hope is that in 10 or 20 years, Sofia could be cleaned up and once again regain its magnificence. The danger is that the crumbling, once beautiful buildings could be replaced by cheaper, ill-fitting, modern, utilitarian, boring facades, using, many, commas. Only time will tell…
Well, when things aren’t fantastic outdoors, head indoors. So we headed to the National Art Gallery. This museum showcased the work of Bulgarian artists from the Middle Ages up through the present day. What most surprised us was the seemingly late development of Bulgarian art. We saw paintings from the 1700’s which had the same stylistic elements as Flemish paintings from the 1400’s. Works displayed from the 1800’s were reminiscent of Byzantine religious works. It almost seemed as if the curators decided to add a few hundred years to the production dates on the display cards, just to mess with us.
Not surprisingly, some of the more interesting work we saw from the late 19th and early 20th centuries were paintings of a militaristic nature (which matched quite well with the multitude of militaristic soviet-era statues you’d see in parks around town).
Maneuvers at Shipka Peak, seen above, by Jaroslav Vesin, from his ‘Maneuvers” series, is a magnificent example of this battle genre, and its impressionistic quality became a catalyst to 20th century Bulgarian art. And right after we were quite impressed by this work, we learned that old Jaroslav was actually Czech. Oh well. We also quite enjoyed the red pants and man-purse of the fellow on the left admiring the painting. Hey… nothing wrong with that: it’s Europe.
And, of course, we must not forget our core audience… those of you who found this site by doing a Google search for some girl named Sofia who pulls her Top Down. For you, dear misguided reader, we present the following:
Nude (hard title to guess… we know), by Dimiter Buyukliisky
What are you on about? It’s art! Don’t complain to us if the boss caught you looking at this when you should have been working. At least we didn’t show you the on-stage pic of the girl at the strip bar/brothel who was wearing a mask (it’s true—must have been the world’s most awful, awful case of butterface). OK… so it wasn’t really a brothel (per se); it was a hotel. Yes, the strip bar/hotel offered what must have been some very popular room service during business conventions. But enough about that, our mothers insist that we keep this site PG-13.
And there it is… the converted old government building on the right. Don’t stay there. On the company. And order “room service”. Don’t do it. Really. Don’t. Bad employee!
For (barely) more tame nightlife, hit the clubs. They’re actually quite good, and, just like everything else in Sofia, more reasonably priced than their Western European counterparts. Unlike Romania and the Czech Republic, restaurants and clubs in Sofia are smoke-free, which makes evenings there much more enjoyable for those of us who prefer not to smell like ash-trays at the end of the night. We decided to hit the “Sugar Club” on account of its proximity to our residence (no drunk foreigner vs. shady taxi negotiations needed at 4 a.m.) and the cool name! Upon entering, we were asked if we wanted fluorescent green wristbands, or fluorescent red wristbands. Well, green ones looked fluorescent-ier under the lights, so give us green! Umm, wait.. what do the colors mean again? Turned out that green meant you were single-and-ready-to-mingle. Red meant stay-away. We thought it was all pretty humorous, particularly when it became apparent that wearing the green was tantamount to slitting your own jugular right before going for a swim in a bathtub full of hungry sharks. Do try it sometime! All the Bulgarian kids think it’s the rage.
**We did have a pic of Top Down Nidal with Tupac at the Sugar Club, but Top Down Ella misplaced the file, so we can’t show it to you. But we are glad to report that he’s doing well, and manages to keep himself in fine shape, unlike many stars who have fallen out of the public eye.
Not a club, but the Central Market is a great example of what Sofia should look like.
Overall, if you asked us whether or not to place Sofia at the top of your list of tourist destinations, the simple answer is that you shouldn’t. We would recommend waiting a few years to give it a chance to be built up a bit more for tourism. It just doesn’t have the captivating look you want to see when you’ve spent time and money to visit an exotic destination. The people are very nice and speak a surprising amount of English (particularly the older members of the population), the prices are cheap, the food is good, and you can spend a few days exploring the town, visiting churches and museums and old commie park statues, but you can do all that better somewhere else. You’re practically on Istanbul’s doorstep, so why stop? But if you’re sent here on business, or have months and months of time on your hands *cough* Top Down Time *cough*, then go ahead and enjoy your stay. It’s an experience which will slowly disappear as the planet (sadly) becomes more and more homogenized and the destructive legacy of Eastern European communism is (happily) swept away.
Before you leave, make sure you attend the tram-on-sedan drag races.
We’ll certainly be back, hoping to see improvement, and when it’s ready for prime time, we’ll let you know. You can do it, Sofia! We’re rooting for you!
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Until next time, when we actually visit a city less likely to depress us out of making jokes (which clearly doesn’t mean Lisbon), keep your Tops Down and your spirits up!