TAILS OF A TRAVELLING CAT
Greetings, humans! It’s our final day on this amazing trip. Can you believe it? We packed in as much as we could throughout the trip and that didn’t change today, we made the most of this final day as well.
On leaving our lovely AirBnb with the galaxy sky but the strange shower-toilet cubicle combination (which our fellow Interrailers we met yesterday also experienced in their hostel – maybe it’s a Bulgarian thing?), we headed to the mineral water fountain using what would prove to be our trusty Sofia cartoon map, courtesy of the AirBnb. The mineral water spring fountains supply clean drinking water to the people of Sofia, mostly pensioners who can’t afford mineral water from the shops as their pensions are too low. The average pension is 200Leva or 100€ (although whether that is per month or year remains unclear), but why they can’t just drink tap water I don’t know. It’s perfectly drinkable, as the Sofia cartoon map told us and Charlie can attest although Jack refused to drink it. The information about pensioners was also provided by the Sofia Cartoon Map (I’ve just decided it should be granted capital letter status) which, as well as being a map, has also provided me with much useful information. How else could I learn the Cyrillic alphabet or tell you that it’s not a good idea to cycle in Sofia as the road is full of potholes? Also in Bulgaria a shake of the head means yes and a nod means no (although Charlie’s scratch-map of the world had already informed Charlie and I of this fact), a loaf of bread costs 1 Lev and the plural of Lev is Leva – such knowledge held in my paws (or the top pocket of Charlie’s hiking bag for quick over-head access).
I have side-tracked slightly, but I hope you now feel culturally enriched, as I do. Let me tell you about my trip to the mineral water springs. There were many individual fountains which Jack was quick to point out bore a rather unfortunate resemblance to urinals. Lovely. Anyway, true to the map, there were pensioners, but younger people too, filling bottle after bottle of water to take home to cool before drinking. Yes, the water which comes out of these springs is hot, so hot in fact it steams. Despite this, the water actually tasted quite nice, although we didn’t fill a bottle as after yesterday’s storm, the weather was now a much more bearable 20°C instead of 30.
After tasting this interesting phenomenon, we got slightly distracted when we discovered quite a lot of Roman ruins under the city, which had only been discovered in 2010 when the Serdika II (СЕРДИКА) Metro station was being constructed. These ruins were fascinating and included three Roman roads, several houses, a bath house and a public latrine. We were fascinated, especially as we could walk through these streets and into the houses. Distraction over, we headed back to our original route.
Next up was the Communist Palace. This seems slightly contradictory to me, I thought Communists believed everyone was equal? Maybe they are suggesting everybody should live in a palace. Perhaps I am wilfully misunderstanding. Next to the Communist Palace was the King’s Palace, now the National Theatre. Does this mean Bulgaria doesn’t have a monarchy anymore? Or perhaps they relocated?
Ok, the internet tells me the monarchy in Bulgaria was abolished in 1946. But the last Tsar (who became Tsar, age six in 1943) then served as prime minister from 2001 to 2005. Interestingly, Bulgaria had three periods in its history as an independent country – in 1018, the Byzantine Conquest occurred, ending the First Bulgarian Empire. It became independent again in 1185 (the Second Bulgarian Empire), but in 1422 it became part of the Ottoman Empire. Bulgaria became independent again in 1878, although apparently the referendum was manipulated. Rulers have variously been known as emperors and monarchs throughout its history, but it was the Communists in 1946 who finally abolished the monarchy.
From here, we walked along a busy road called Tsar Osvoboditel (which means Tsar Liberator – is that an oxymoron? – after the Russian Tsar who aided in liberating Bulgaria in 1877-8) where a set of broken traffic lights at a very busy crossroads meant the police were having a great time directing traffic. As I may have mentioned yesterday, it is strictly forbidden to take pictures of the police, army or customs officials. I’m not quite sure what happens if you do, but we decided not to risk it. We continued along this road into what our AirBnb receptionist had called the Hippy District. Here we passed a statue of a horse (a monument to Bulgaria’s liberator), Sofia University and arrived at a giant Soviet statue, but alas no hippies. In front of the statue (as we approached it, it was actually located to the side if you faced the statue head-on) was a small skate park and we sat high upon the steps of this ethically questionable Soviet statue for lunch. The ethical debate largely centres around whether the statue should remain as a historical monument or be torn down as it glorifies Communism and Soviet atrocities or something. I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure, but I do know it was a good place to observe the world and we couldn’t actually see the statue as we sat on it. After lunch, we crossed some busy roads and the Eagle Bridge from the questionable-Soviet-statue-park to another park, which I presume was less ethically dubious, although it did contain many, many busts of… er… people who were probably famous in Bulgaria, some of them may even have been Soviets. There were also lots of nice trees and benches which I approve of, plenty of choice for a seat for a Chesh. We had discovered an ice cream place in the locality (thanks go to Happy Cow) and so we were soon headed to Gelateria Naturala. Here Charlie had a scoop of fondant ice cream and one of strawberry sorbet, and Jack had two fondant ice cream scoops. These went down very well and soon we were headed to the National Palace of Culture (NDK in Bulgarian Latin letters or НДК in Cyrillic).
We wandered through the streets of the Hippy District (still no hippies) passing what we assumed was the British Embassy, but which actually seemed to be trying to garner tourism for the UK. We arrived at the NDK which we were rather underwhelmed by, but the adjoining gardens were very nice, until it started to rain. My foolish humans put on their raincoats and moved to sit on another bench, only partly sheltered under a tree. I was firmly hidden in Charlie’s bag, covered in a florescent orange rain-cover. I was glad the rain soon stopped and we decided to enter the Tourist Trap (it sounds like a capital letter kind of place to me, this was the way the Sofia Cartoon Map-giving receptionist described it to us). This is basically a shopping street, not normally the place my humans would visit, but they needed souvenirs and it seemed a likely place.
We had plenty of time before we needed to be at the airport and had done everything which was on our list to do, so we spent much, much time meandering in and out of souvenir shops looking for the best deals and generally looking very touristy. We eventually found the souvenirs we wanted – I was particularly taken with Charlie’s Cyrillic alphabet T-shirt. Whilst we are on the subject of Cyrillic, allow me to relate to you a few of the more important Bulgarian words – СОФИЯ (Sofia), БЪЛГАРИЯ (Bulgaria), ЦЕШ (Chesh) and КОТКА (kotka in Latin letters), which I think is a rather nice word for cat. In fact, let me tell you the word for cat in a few different languages because cat is probably one of the most important words you’ll need to know if you ever visit these countries. Cat is gato in Spanish, chat in French and Katze in German. And the languages of every country we’ve visited so far: kot in Polish, kočka in Czech, mačka in Slovak, macska in Hungarian and цат (cat) in Serbian.
Language lesson and shopping over, we settled down for dinner overlooking the Roman ruins and as we had some time to spare, decided we wanted cake and headed to Loving Hut for cake. After going the wrong way and accidentally ending up at the Lion Bridge (which was famous enough to be featured on the Sofia Cartoon Map) we finally arrived in Loving Hut, where we actually ordered two slices of quiche (one vegetable, one Lorraine), a conical chocolate and date creation, a Snickers-style cake and a strawberry smoothie. Our purchase would have been much less, but the card machine broke and the minimum we could take out of an ATM (БАНКОМАТ or Bank o mat in Bulgarian) was 20Leva (approximately £8.96), which, this being our last day, we had to spend. So we bought lots of food.
It was then time to catch the Metro to the airport, we were through check in quickly and then security, our longest queue was at customs (why was this before our flight?) and then we were through to the lounge where our flight was delayed by 40 minutes. Thank you, RyanAir…
We were finally allowed to board (more security) and we were shunted onto a bus. We were now well experienced with this type of flying and sat down on a surprisingly comfy (flat) wheel arch in the bus to wait for it to finally take us to our plane (a long enough journey for once that we could justify not walking). We boarded the plane and only 50 minutes late, we took off.
This being a 10pm flight, all was dark in Sofia and as we took off we saw Bulgaria lit up below. We saw the streets of towns, intersections of main roads and car parks. It was fascinating but then we flew too high and all below us was blackness and what I think might be the occasional flash of lightening. When we arrive in the UK, it’ll be some time after 11pm, but we’ll feel like it’s two hours later as we’ll still be on Bulgarian time.
Sofia has sure had some amazing things to offer and we’ve had a fantastic time here, as in every other city. Bulgaria and all of Eastern Europe (that we visited, anyway) we will miss you!
Well, that’s all folks. Until the next adventure! Chesh.
P.S. For those of you who read Day 9 yesterday, on the day it was published (I approve), I have now added a picture of the Dimitrovgrad stamp in Charlie's passport. I'm sure you'll be thrilled to see it and you know I'll be disappointed if you don't.