On a hot summer evening, my plane landed in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. My last connection flight in Rome was a tricky one: I had to run to catch the plane and I’ve made it only because the flight to Sofia was delayed as well. Glad to be finally almost at my destination, I was looking a bit absently minded at the conveyor belt waiting for my little blue suitcase which knew already so many parts of the world. As the bags were turning round and round, my tired mind was playing a pleasant movie of the holidays to come. Until a girl addressed me saying something that sounded a little bit like Russian, but not enough for me to make up much of it. To my smile and “Sorry, I don’t speak Bulgarian”, she asked in clear English whether that was the belt where they would bring the bags from the Amsterdam flight. Surprised, I looked again at the display: indeed, meanwhile the display had advanced to the next on the list: Amsterdam. So I was luckier than my suitcase in Rome: it hadn’t made it to the last flight.
The people at the lost and found were rather nice, but they spoke a quite limited English. And even with my papers in front of them, they managed to enter almost everything wrong in the form that they had on the computer. I tried to politely observe that my home address was wrong, and that my name had gotten an m instead of n, but the lady was absolutely convinced that it does not matter and she reassured me that they will find my luggage while I’m still in Sofia and they will send it to my hotel. I did not really have much choice, so I believed her.
Knowing that I will arrive quite late, and having no idea as to how far the airport is from the town or how one can get there, I had previously booked the shuttle service that the hotel was offering. Indeed, regardless of the delay, a young driver was still holding my name up in front of the arrivals. The trip was short and pleasant, the driver polite, but almost mute because he did not feel too confident of his English. As such, I just sat back and tried to make something out of the landscape. New modern roads leading to the town, a lot of traffic, many modern cars. Once in the town, we got fast into a kind of labyrinth of small streets in what looked at first like a residential area. But among all the buildings, there stood indeed my hotel with its new and ultra modern architecture. As it turned out, there is also a bus service to the airport, but it does not run in the early mornings and late evenings. But the surprise is that a taxi to the airport costs about 10 Leva (don’t expect the change from the taxi driver!) as opposed to the 20 Euros for the shuttle.
The lady at the hotel reception spoke English with more confidence than the driver. She was very nice and helpful. However, her colleague next day looked incredibly scared when I asked her to phone at the airport to enquire about my missing luggage. She agreed, but she seemed so distressed about it that I felt a bit bad about it. Nevertheless, I was to make her misery even bigger by asking her to show me on the map where we are. She did her best and tried really hard, but after more than 10 minutes of looking at the map, I was the first to spot the street. She gave me however a lot of useful information as to what to visit and the direction to the centre.
As I usually do, I strolled around the town. I like to walk the streets of a town prior to anything. To see its people, its buildings, its traffic, parks, bars, cafes, restaurants and everything. From one point of view Sofia looked surprisingly similar to another capital, a bit more to the north: Bucharest. The same traffic, the same dusty roads, the same neighbourhoods that are sometimes so similar that you cannot tell them apart, and some of the same gray concrete buildings that are the scars of Communist times, the same contrasts between old and new, modern and sometimes pre-war buildings. But the similarities stop here, as each town shows in its old buildings its roots and history. Sofia is smaller than Bucharest in number of inhabitants, but it doesn’t have a single tiny Old Town. Instead, the main attractions are scattered around the city center that can be seen however on foot as well as by public transportation. I’ve seen the famous churches of Sofia: the imposant Alexander Nevski cathedral, the late Roman church of St. George that finds itself a rather unwilling element of a hotel’s courtyard, the old Boyana church that has seen more than 10 centuries passing by, and the little but exquisitely beautiful and warm Russian church.
Museums are also everywhere, but none of them really caught my eye too much. The people were a much more interesting look. Hurrying along the streets, of all ages and positions, they were quite like the town itself: lively, vibrant, often contrasting in manners or dress, quite often in a hurry, usually helpful, sometimes misleading, and quite often nodding instead of an answer. Oh, and in Bulgaria when they nod, it actually means “NO”. Good thing to know before traveling to Bulgaria, isn’t it?