I held my breath and tried to look natural while I was waiting for the immigration officer to stamp me in. I never know where to look while they have my passport. Do I look at them? Or look away? I was just about to let out a sigh of relief when I saw the big metal stamper come down on my passport. But right before he should have pushed down on the stamp, he paused, and stared at the screen for what seemed like 10 minutes. Crap.
This was my second attempt at getting into Bulgaria. I was turned away last time, at the airport, after arriving. It was October 2020 and Americans weren’t allowed in. I had the obscene luck of squirming my way into the E.U. with a permission slip from Hungary. And once you’re in the EU, you’re pretty much free to roam about, with no internal border checkpoints. Kind of. The “free” travel was only setup inside a zone referred to as “The Schengen Area,”, but I had no clue about all this. Imagine my surprise when all of a sudden I was stamped “out” of Amsterdam on the way to my gate to board my flight to Sofia. Uh oh. Luckily I didn’t end up in jail or with a fine. The fine folks in Bulgaria just made sure I got on the next plane outta there. I’d have to come back for Bulgaria at another time. Well I’m here.
When the officer asked if this was my first time here, I stammered. I wasn’t expecting the question.
“Yes. Well, no. Well, kind of.”
I explained I was turned back last year. I figured honesty was the best policy. He asked a few more questions and before finally placing the stamper on my open passport. But that 10-second pause before I finally heard the ker-plunk was agonizing.
Even getting here this time was stressful. I’d held the ticket to Sofia for 10 months. When I booked this trip back to Bulgaria, almost a year ago, I figured (along with everyone else) that this whole Corona Virus would have to be wrapped up by now. Ha! Despite the EU recently opening up for Americans, Bulgaria kept us on the red list almost all the way up until my trip. By sheer luck, the country welcomed back Americans just a few days before I was to arrive. UK passengers were still banned, however, so I wasn’t sure I’d make it in, since my flight here was through London Heathrow. I ended up cancelling my London to Sofia leg on British Airways, and booking an overnight in Vienna, in-between. I wasn’t taking any chances. Closer to the trip I found a same day flight from London that connected in Frankfurt – passengers arriving from Germany were allowed in. However, the Lufthansa flight would not let me check-in online, showing me a message in red that read: “UK Passengers Not Allowed to Travel to Bulgaria.” Ugh! I guess since that flight was even just originating from the UK, it was a problem. After some fancy footwork and a little charm at the Lufthansa desk in London–I had to explain I was coming from the USA and didn’t leave the airport in the UK–I was given my boarding passes. But that still didn’t assure I’d get into Bulgaria.
Ker-plunk. I was in.
I let out a huge hallelujah (internally), then grabbed a taxi, then sleep. I’d been traveling for I don’t know how long. I was exhausted.
I was still a little delirious when I stumbled out of my hotel for that first morning walk, my head still spinning from the long day(s) of travel behind me and my body clock out of wack. The brisk air helped wake me up. The weather? I’d lucked out, dodging the rain. I didn’t even have to wear a coat. This was sweater weather and perfect for a good walk. I started down a long, pedestrian street, with cafés on both sides, finally approaching the National Palace of Culture. Without looking at the map, I just followed the natural path, which turned into a pedestrian bridge over a busy street, dumping me out into the enormous Yuzhen Park on the other side. The leaves were turning and this morning’s stroll through the gigantic park was a great way to reset after all that travel.
After turning and heading back in the direction of the center of town, I admired many beautiful buildings, passed by the city’s mineral hot springs and tried my best to eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations in Bulgarian. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before. I was so happy to be here and I’d savor every moment.
In my pre-trip intel on Bulgaria, the thing I was most looking forward to experiencing was actually a treat, called the mekitsa. It’s just fried dough, but it looked amazing. I was a little concerned though – it was nearing 1PM and I’d yet to spot any mekitsas. I was getting hungry and refused to waste my appetite on anything other than a mekitsa. No croissants, no muffins, no donuts…I didn’t want anything but a mekitsa. I finally found a little stall with these heavenly fried pillows of dough lookin’ all sexy behind the glass case. It was worth the wait!
I spent the rest of the afternoon strolling through town looking at all those beautiful buildings. And not one piece of litter anywhere – Sofia is one clean city.
Dinner was a traditional meal at Hadjidraganov’s Cellar. It was barely 5PM – I’m gettin’ old with the “early bird special here,” but I’d clocked in over 15,000 steps and I was ready for some good food and my hotel room bed. I had a great salad and a long wooden slab covered with beef and potatoes in this super-authentic Bulgarian establishment. The place was decorated in wood and stone and featured a spinning water wheel. If you’re looking for a great, traditional meal while in Bulgaria, this place will do the trick.
With my sleep schedule still severely out of wack, I woke up just after 5AM. I decided to do some work and wait until Mekitsa and Coffee opened at 9AM. Unfortunately, at around 7:45AM, I passed out like a drunken sailor and wouldn’t open my eyes until 1:30PM. Damn!
Out on the street after 2PM, I headed for my mekitsas. I ended up walking in the wrong direction and stopping to admire the many distractions along the way, including the iconic St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Just incredible! I hopped on a streetcar and finally made it to Mekitsas and Coffee close to 3PM. It was worth the wait! This was the first time I’d ever have to present my vaccine card to enter an establishment.
In The Garden
After my caloric-heavy breakfast/brunch, it was time to walk it off with a trek through a giant park called Boris’ Garden. This no-frills nature reserve is spectacular just because of its simplicity: a handful of trails surrounded by nothing but trees. Two minutes in and you forget you’re in the city. The leaves turning made it just a fantastic walk. When I finally arrived on the other side (it’s a haul), my feet were aching enough to try the subway, which would get me right back to the hotel. Perfect!
I had a strange hankerin’ for Mexican tonight, as weird as that sounds. Maybe it’s because I passed a Mexican restaurant on the street last night – color me intrigued. It was also the date of my radio station’s big event back home: Taco Fest. Since I wasn’t there to work with my team I felt it only right to have a taco in their honor. A Google search led me to a place called Takoteka about half-mile away. This may have been one of my biggest scores of the trip.
Who has tacos when they’re visiting Bulgaria? This guy! Why not? I mean, how cool does it sound to say you’ve had Bulgarian tacos? But there was not a thing Bulgarian about these tacos, nor the authentically Mexi-hipster vibe the restaurant pulled off. I was just floored by their menu, which featured everything from al pastor to birria, with all the spicy gusto you’d expect from a cool joint in San Diego or Hollywood. I’ve been to plenty of “Mexican” restaurants overseas, and 99% of the time it’s puro Tex-Mex: serapes and sombreros. But this place was legit.
My order consisted of a tamarindo-lemonade and carne asada taco plate. I ordered seconds, but this time, the birria which was bananas! I finished it off with the “mango cream” for dessert. Absolutely magnifique! A perfect ending to a short but special day in #166.
3PM flight out today, so I was able to relax and enjoy my morning. I stopped into Central Market Hall, but there wasn’t much going on at 8AM. I headed back to the room to grab my jacket and cap – the weather was a little chillier today. I’d enjoy the 15-minute walk over to Mekitsa and Coffee to arrive just as they opened at nine. It was my last day in Bulgaria and last chance at one of these babies, so I got two – another Nutella and bananas and a blueberry. I watched them make them this time and they were still piping hot by the time I got upstairs to eat them. Just a big kid with Nutella all over his face, nothing to see here, move along.
Can I tell you what a fan I am of the 3PM flight? I enjoyed the easy pace this morning before finally boarding the train for the airport a 11:30AM.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: If you’re staying in the center, you can use the train to and from the airport. Line 4 literally stops at the doorstep of my hotel (Sofia Hotel Balkan). At 95 cents, it’s a bargain! Plus, the subway is very clean and wasn’t chaotic at all when I traveled.
I really enjoyed Sofia. It’s a very clean, organized and well-paced city. There’s so much to do and see, all in walking distance, including a lot of parks and nature. The people seemed friendly and not one person bothered me. A few of my friends insisted I make it out of the city and over to Plodviv, but I only had two full days in Bulgaria and took it easy, by design. Plus, I really enjoy the big cities. My time was very well spent in Sofia and I leave with nothing but fond memories.This entry was posted in Europe