Friday, June 02, 2017

Visit to Bulgaria

Bulgaria was one of those places I'd heard about but never expected to visit. But when you live in Europe it's just a short plane trip away, so why not? We booked a cheap flight on Wizz Air to the capital, Sofia, and took a day trip via train to Plovdiv.

Sofia has roots that go back to 7000 BC and was known as Serdica during Roman times, but it has more of a modern feel today.

Roman ruins with the former Bulgarian Communist Party Headquarters in the back

The bulk of the country is agricultural with mountainous areas and also has a coastline with the Black Sea where the resort town of Varna is located. Like many Balkan countries, the area comprising Bulgaria today has undergone many changes, with occupation under rules from Byzantium to Ottoman to Soviet, and the major religion changing from Christian to Islam under the Ottoman rule and back to Christian (Eastern Orthodox). Today Bulgaria is a secular state and is a member of the EU since 2007. Economically, they are one of the poorer EU countries, but that makes it a bargain for tourists from more well-off countries.

As our taxi took us from the airport to our hotel in Sofia, my first impression was somewhat sad as I saw one crumbling concrete apartment tower block after another. There was hope though when I saw a shiny new shopping mall. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad. And it wasn't. Sofia has its struggles, but it's not Albania. Yes, there are issues but there are signs of growth. There are restored and new buildings, there are plenty of stores and people shopping, lots of restaurants and people dining, large parks with people out enjoying them, and a stadium full of soccer fans.

Don't know who this is, but they leave flowers

Museum of History
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral 

But reminders of days past remain. The picture below is of a monument for the 1300th anniversary of Bulgaria. The monument wasn't intended to look like this. It was built in 1981 and began to fall apart four years later. By the 90s it had deteriorated so badly they had to fence it off. That structural steel was supposed to be hidden. Debates continue about whether to demolish it or restore it.

For Soviet era statues in better condition, we visited the Museum of Socialist Art.

The red star is from the former Party Headquarters

Just a couple of hard working comrades

Lenin. Of course. 

As I said before, Bulgaria is a bargain for tourists. The Bulgarian lev (or BGN) is fixed to the euro at about 2 lev to 1 euro. But since the prices in lev look reasonable to a Western European (or American), essentially everything is "half price". For example, a nice entree in a restaurant was around 12-15 lev. I had a large salad of feta, tomato, lettuce and cucumber that was only 6 lev. A large pizza with a beer might be 7-10 lev. A kilo of cherries at the outdoor market (called Ladies Market) was only 3 lev. Entrance to museums is around 5 lev per person and the taxi ride to the airport was 11.70 lev. By the way, if you should travel there, don't make the mistake of falling for one of the roaming "taxi guys" in the airport arrivals like we did and pay 30 lev for the ride into the city in a taxi that smelled of gas fumes. You will probably do better at the taxi stand. There is a metro but you have to take a shuttle over to the other terminal. If I'd had more time, I might have done some shopping. I saw a number of name brand stores, and I was curious if the prices were lower than what I see in Germany.

I did see a few fabric stores but didn't go in. I find travel fabric harder to shop for unless I know there's a good chance I'll find some really special fabric that I can't get at home. What I saw in windows of these stores looked like pretty great bargains. Just passing by, I saw tags on some bolts that said 2.99 or 4, which I assume would have been 3-4 lev per meter, so at € 1.5 - 2  that's a terrific bargain! But I don't need to buy fabric just because it's cheap.

Yarn, however, is another story. I like buying yarn that is local to the region or country and one or two skeins can easily be squished into my luggage. Knowing that my stash already overflows, I didn't set out to find any yarn shops in Sofia and didn't see any so I don't know what the offerings are there, but by chance I passed one in Plovidiv. We had some time before our return train to Sofia, so I stopped in and bought some Bulgarian yarn - 200 grams for 4 lev. Earlier, while in the old town of Plovdiv, I stopped in one of the antique shops and bought two old spindles for 10 lev - tourist prices perhaps and maybe I could have bargained, but € 5 was ok with me! Bulgaria is a country rich in handicraft culture, so finding spindles in the antique store was not so unusual I guess.

Since I like seeing examples of handicrafts, a visit to the Ethnographic Museum in Sofia was a good place to go on a rainy morning. It's quite small but cost only 5 lev for entry. (I read that the Ethnographic Museum in Plovidiv is very nice but it was closed on Monday, the day we visited). They have many examples of Bulgarian clothing - sadly some a bit moth worn, which I was keen to notice after my recent run-in with moths.

I love the use of buttons for decoration!

The highlight of the museum was meeting a weaver and watching her work on her vertical loom.

She weaves at the museum every day (except Monday when they're closed) and puts on exhibits there with her guild. She was pleased to hear that I weave and was happy to describe how her loom worked and demonstrate how she weaves. She also showed me some of her rugs/wall hangings she has woven and she talked about the meanings of the motifs on them. She had a small book of Bulgarian weaving designs, which I was so hoping they'd have for sale at the gift shop, but sadly they did not.

The gift shop had some nice things - actually some of the nicest souvenirs in Sofia - but this spinning wheel on the top shelf caught my eye. I think it actually was for sale. The tag on it says "250", lev I assume. Didn't think I could get it home on my cheap Wizz Air flight though.

We also visited the Archaeology Museum in Sofia where they had a nice exhibit of items from Neolithic through Roman times.

First some pictures of things related to spinning, sewing and weaving:

Spindle whorls!
More tools from ancient handicrafts

Belt hardware. I love the way they displayed these - you get an idea of how they were used.

There were some very lovely things in this museum:

This is an invitation for the circus games - fights between men and animals

This is a salt box - the top part of the head of Pan hinged open

Beautiful gold work!

Plovdiv was about a 3 hour train ride from Sofia. The ride was long and a bit bumpy, but the scenery of the mountains and farmland is pretty. Plovdiv has a nice old town area and some significant Roman ruins to see:

The Stadium of Phillippopolis is partly excavated underneath the main shopping street

The Theater of Philippopolis
I wish we could have also toured some museums there, but it was Monday and most were closed.

All in all, a pleasant visit. I recommend Sofia, for the history, the culture, the food and the bargains!

And Wizz Air wasn't a bad way to travel there. Pretty cheap tickets and they even had Bulgarian white wine.


  1. Lori, thanks for the tour!

  2. This is wonderful. Thanks for sharing this trip.

    1. You're welcome and I'm glad you enjoyed my post!