15.06.2012 28 °C
I took my first taxi ride today, since it was a fair hike to the bus station. During the short trip, we pulled over and picked up the boss of the taxi company, who appeared to be waiting for a bus? It was a pretty cheap ride and saved me lugging my backpack uphill for 20 minutes.
The next bus didn't leave for another hour and a half, so I stored my luggage and went for a last stroll around town. It's a nice place, but there's clearly never been a town planner, as "turn left at the corner" always seems to have about three left options. I guess these towns are so old the streets just sprung up as they were needed, rather than being planned.
One last look at Veliko Tarnovo - town of the Tsars
For the first time since the Czech Republic, my bus was a big modern coach. However, there seemed to be a glitch with my seat, so whenever we went uphill I lay down, and whenever we went downhill, I sat up again. Bulgaria is mountainous. As much as I as struck by how green Romania is, I'm surprised at how much of this country is mountains. We drove through them for pretty much the entire 3 hour journey, only coming out into flat ground when we reached the capital, Sofia. As with Bucharest, I have read so many times how awful Sofia is and not to bother coming here. And as with Bucharest, I couldn't disagree more. Sofia is beautiful. I did have a small nightmare trying to figure out which tram to catch into the city, when everyone told me a different number, but I got there in the end. I think my timing is lucky too, because the street which normally only allows trams down it is under construction, so it's completely traffic free.
Vitosha Boulevard, with Mt Vitosha in the distance
After checking in (to a rather nice hotel), I had a couple of hours to fill in before I joined the city walking tour. The shopping here is amazing, but more expensive than you'd expect for Bulgaria. I think if I did a trip through the Balkans countries, I'd finish in Sofia, just to enjoy some shopping before heading home. I don't think I've ever seen so many shoe shops in one place.
There was a big group for the walking tour, but we moved along quite quickly, as there is a lot to see here including Roman ruins, a 3rd century church, a mosque, synagogue, beautiful theatre, and of course the iconic Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It's even more impressive than it appears in photos and as the sun was just beginning to set, the light made it quite an amazing sight.
We also passed the presidential palace, being guarded by a couple of Bulgarian soldiers in their parade uniforms. We were told photos were OK, but not to get too close.
During the tour, we heard and saw a large stream of people moving along a nearby boulevard. This was the third day of protests against the government's decision to relax laws prohibiting development of natural reserves, including Vitosha mountain which lies inside the city limits and is a favourite hiking spot for locals and tourists.
Although it was a peaceful demonstration, and there was a large police presence, I was a bit dismayed when the guide said I should just walk down the boulevard through the crowd to get back to my hotel. Fortunately, a British couple were headed in the same direction, so we decided to walk together and we skirted around the edge via some side streets. It turned out we were staying at the same hotel.
I really like Sofia. In the city centre at least, it's lovely. The people seem happy and relaxed, there are loads of high end shops, and of course lots of places to eat the wonderful Bulgarian cuisine.