Saturday, October 17, 2015

Sofia and Boyana Church

After tossing and turning for about four hours, I left my London hostel and headed toward the airport (on a night bus that cost an exorbitant £1.50.) Check-in and security went very quick, and I made it to my gate with a good 2 hours to spare.

The flight was uneventful, and I may or may not have slept for about 95 seconds - an astonishingly long time, considering my relationship with airplanes.

One of the first things you'll notice on arrival: Bulgaria is in a whole other world from London, price wise. That is to say, everything is cheap - dirt cheap. A taxi ride from the airport to downtown Sofia - about 10 km - cost about $7.50 USD. My hostel cost about $10 a night - and I could have gone even cheaper. (On a side note, the hostel - the creatively named Hostel Mostel - was wonderful, and it put the overpriced UK and Irish hostels to shame.)  

I asked the receptionist for restaurant recommendations - he suggested one area that had "more expensive" meals that might run you a good "7-10 Euros" (so $7.25-$10.25 USD.) The standard meal at a decent restaurant apparently costs the equivalent of $3-$5. Considering the day before I paid close to $50 for a single meal in London - well, I'm not going to complain about a $5 meal. (I should mentioned that my hostel offered free breakfasts and dinners, so I rarely paid anything at all for my meals.)

In short, a visit here probably isn't going to break your budget.

The next thing you might notice is that Sofia doesn't really feel like a major world city. And it's not. The outskirts have lots of those lovely crumbling communist era apartment buildings that remind me so much of Moscow, but the city center is pretty standard stuff, complete with yellow brick roads and that authentically European mixture of nice looking centuries old churches and not-so-nice looking 50 year old shops and apartment buildings.  

To be honest, Sofia probably isn’t a great destination in and of itself - you wouldn’t want to bother spending a full week or a whole vacation here. However, as a stop along a much longer trip around the region, I found it more than worth the effort. I had nearly 3 full days there (including a day trip to Rila Monastery), and that felt sufficient - I didn’t ever feel bored, and I didn’t leave with regrets about missing any major sites (though it might have been nice to travel up into the mountains that border the city.) 


My first full day in the city also marked the first truly hot day of my trip. And heat tends to suck the life out of me. 

Nevertheless, I mustered up my courage and ventured out into the heat to join a walking tour of the city. It was a great way to get orientated and to learn something about the history of this relatively obscure corner of Europe. My tour guide's enthusiasm for the city was infectious. (He was also considerate enough to find shady places for us to stand whenever he stopped to explain something.)

The tour took us to many of the top sights of the city. 

We visited a lot of the government buildings (many built during the Communist era), including the presidential palace, where we were able to watch the Bulgarian version of the changing of the guard. (But with absolutely none of the crowds of the more famous English iteration of the ceremony.) 

Then we saw some Roman ruins that were only recently discovered during excavations for a new metro line.

A bunch of old stones. 
There were some pretty (and colorful) gardens and fountains.

We saw quite a few churches, including the 1500 year old Church of St. George, which made an interesting contrast to the surrounding modern parliament buildings and hotels.

The fourth century Church of St. George, surrounded by parliament buildings and a hotel.

At the end of the tour, I went inside the amazing Alexander Nevsky cathedral. The interior was disappointingly dark, but you could still see some impressive frescoes and paintings on the walls. More importantly, the exterior is very cool looking. 
Alexander Nevsky cathedral

On the way home, a gypsy with her young daughter on her shoulders "persuaded" me to buy her food by cornering me when I was looking at the displays in a shop window. Fortunately, food here is very cheap, and I'm not really going to begrudge the $3 I spent on food. (And I feel better about buying someone food than just giving money anyways.)

Boyana Church

Tired, sweaty, and worn out by the time I got back to my hostel, I wrestled with the idea of skipping the last stop of the day and just taking a nap. My better side won over (the "you're probably not coming back here any time soon and you're much more likely to regret not going than going" side), however, and I mustered up the energy to take a taxi up the mountainside to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Boyana Church.

The church is located on the foothills of Mt. Vitusha right outside Sofia-proper. Total round trip taxi cost for the 16km journey? 17 lev, or $9.80. Take that New York City!

Ok, the exterior isn't photogenic. It's cool because it was built more than a 1000 years ago

Built around 1000 AD, Boyana Church still has its original frescoes, and they're remarkably well preserved. They're beautiful and bright and vivid. Unfortunately, you can only spend 10 minutes inside, and you aren't allowed to take pictures - so I was content to just stand in awe at the holy images covering nearly every inch of the interior, from floor to ceiling. Since I couldn't take pictures, just do a Google image search for "Boyana Church" to get a decent idea of the interior.

The church itself is located in a peaceful little walled off garden - that randomly has a few Redwood trees growing. It was a nice way to end my day in Sofia. 

A Redwood tree on the Boyana Church grounds

Sunday, October 11, 2015


My post titles are getting progressively more boring, aren't they? Oh well.

As you might have guessed from the post title, I went to London.

It was really more of a stopover before my next flight, but I found plenty to do during my three-ish days there and grew to quite like the city.

First impressions: It's not nearly as stressful (re: loud, crowded, overwhelming) as New York. This may have something to do with the fact that it's less "centralized" than NYC - there's no single hellishly busy hub like Times Square where you feel you're going to be smothered by a teeming mass of sweaty, smelly... Well, never mind. Some people apparently see London's lower key nature as a drawback. Some people are crazy.

It is possibly even more expensive, though, particularly with the abominable exchange rate.

London has also indisputably retained a lot more of its historical spirit than NYC. Whereas the Powers-That-Be in NYC can't seem to move fast enough to replace all the characterful brick nooks and crannies that made so many fall in love with it over the decades with architecturally homogeneous (and bland, and alienating, and soulless, and...) steel and concrete and glass skyscrapers, London still has a lot of buildings older than 100 years (mixed in with some genuinely cool modern edifices like the Shard.) Occasionally, when you're walking in the right area, you can briefly fool yourself into thinking that you're sharing the streets with some of the historical personalities that once lived and worked here.

In brief: While NYC feels like it would drive my introverted, low key crazy within a few months, I actually feel like I could live in London. 

Day 1 - The British Museum and Gypsy 

My hostel was conveniently situated a block from Hyde Park and about halfway between Royal Albert Hall (which, I believe, would take many holes to fill) and the Natural History Museum on a charming street lined with old Victorian houses (now occupied by midscale restaurants and the Bulgarian embassy.) In keeping with the rest of the western Europe hostels I stayed in, the hostel itself was kind of trashy and felt like it hadn't been renovated since 1898. (I woke up every time someone turned on the water anywhere in the building.)

I arrived in the mid afternoon, so I didn't have much time to visit most of the big sites on the first day (since they almost all close at 5pm.) I left Victoria Station and hoofed it on over to my hostel - and quickly regretted my decision to not take the Underground, since it turned out to be a lot further than I had anticipated (especially while carrying my heavy backpackers pack.) However, I did pass through some nice streets and I got to see some of the ubiquitous historical monuments and statues that dot the area around Hyde Park.

After checking in and dropping my stuff off, I successfully navigated the London Underground to get to the British Museum (which, fortuitously, is open late on Fridays.)

The British Museum is huge and has lots of invaluable and wonderful and historically important things stolen from other countries during Britain's halcyon imperialist days.

I saw the Rosetta Stone, lots of other ancient Egyptian and Roman artifacts, and the rather cool "Lewis Chessmen" - chess pieces carved out of walrus ivory and whale teeth in Scandinavia about 1000 years ago (and later found on a Scottish island.) I also had the "privilege" to view some bog bodies - frighteningly well-preserved human remains found naturally "mummified" in peat bogs.

The Lewis Chessman

Mummified cats

After the British Museum, I decided it was time for something more cheerful - so how about Gypsy, the legendary musical comedy about a Devouring Mother who (almost?) manages to destroy both of her children in her obsessive quest for recognition and fame?

It's one of the Sondheim-involved shows I had never seen, and the production happened to star one of my favorite British actresses - Imelda Staunton (aka Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter movies and Vera Drake in, well, Vera Drake.)

It was incredible - funny and frightening and fun. And Staunton gave one of the best performances I've ever seen on stage.

Day 2 (Lots of Theater)

I was admittedly kind of lazy during my time here - I had a list of about ten historical sites and museums I wanted to visit, and only ended up getting to about half of them. So no Westminster Abbey, or Churchill War Rooms, or Victoria & Albert Museum. I preferred to stay in my bunk surfing the internet and thinking about what I was going to do if I ever got out of bed.

I started the day out late with a visit to Buckingham Palace, which was positively swamped with people. I didn't get to see much of the Changing of the Guard - it was about 300 feet away - but I did get a nice closeup view of a military band and horsemen riding by on the street.

From there, I pushed my way through the crowd to see (but not visit) Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. Then it was on to Trafalgar Square.

And then the National Gallery. The Gallery had some lovely paintings by Da Vinci, Monet, Manet, and - my personal favorites - Georges Seurat and JMW Turner.

Unfortunately, I sometimes get burned out on museums very quickly - and this day was no exception. Rather than going to one or two of the other sites I planned to visit during the day, I made my way back to the West End to pick up some discount theater tickets.

First up: a matinee of Miss Saigon. 

Which I didn't like at all. It's a (re-)musicalization of the opera Madame Butterfly - which I happened to see at the Utah Opera last year, and mostly enjoyed. But this version - from the makers of Les Miserables - has none of the musical power of Puccini's opera or of their own previous musical.

If you've seen Les Mis, just imagine the songs "Lovely Ladies" and "Master of the House" stretched out over the length of a play, with Monsieur Thenardier as a lead character. The music often sounds similar to Les Mis, but it's missing everything that makes that show good. There's no redemption or beauty. Tragedy can be cathartic and even ennobling - but here it's just vulgar and ugly and sleazy.

Fortunately, my ticket only cost £20.

That evening, I saw The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - a rather brilliantly conceived and original production about a teenage boy with autism and his troubled relationship with his (separated) mother and father. Among many other memorable aspects, it had one of the most striking sets I've ever seen. And a great ending.

Day 3 (or: "How I Slept in Really Late and Managed to Waste Much of My Last Day in London") 

I may have already missed my chance to get to a lot of the sites on my list, but I at least have to get to the Tower of London - right?

So I bought myself a ticket to take a tour of the site with one of the Yeoman/"Beefeater" guards. He did a wonderful job explaining some of the history of the storied castle. I also got to see the crown jewels, walked along the wall and explored some of the towers.

I like the mixture of the old and the new in this pic
I walked across the Tower Bridge, got a close-up view of the Shard (the tallest skyscraper in London), and headed back to South Kensington.

 I ate my last dinner (in London) at a delicious and undeliciously expensive Indian restaurant. 

Fresh made mango ice cream

Then I went back to my hostel and prepared for my early morning flight to Sofia, where I would begin the next section of my trip.