Sofia, Bulgaria: Empty & Lost

Train platform, Sofia Bulgaria

Sofia, Bulgaria.

Bulgaria’s an EU country with a swirling Cyrillic script that’s indecipherable. Unless you’ve studied and learned it, of course, when I would imagine it would be perfectly easy. It counts Greece as a neighbour, and on and off ally, along with Macedonia, Serbia, Romania and Turkey. It hasn’t yet entered the eurozone (so it’s probably feeling smug right about now) and it has fewer people living inside its borders than there are within London’s M25 (a record, incidentally, that several Balkan nations share.)

It also has a graveyard of a central station, or so I thought when I first arrived. Blinking with sleep into the buttercup-yellow light, I stood on the platform and looked around.

An abandoned train stood opposite, incoherent graffiti scrawled along its length. The escalators had seen better days (I hoped) as they slumped, lifeless, in a congealing layer of sludge.

After the escalators, there was no-one. Just the echoing footsteps of my fellow passengers as they made their way to Sofia’s hottest parties, clad in hot pants, mustard tights and white wellies. We’d travelled together on the overnight train from Istanbul, me on my interrail pass, they as a diversion from their English studies in Turkey. A story for another day.

Bulgaria map
Back in Sofia, in the midday sun made milky by the wintry haze, I hauled my suitcase up the steps to the central rail concourse.

No-one moved. Traffic peeled past outside, casting reflections on the floor. A man sat inside a tiny McDonalds booth, arms crossed, shoulders hunched. The “golden M” was one of the few symbols I could recognise, a rather depressing observation.

I sat down to gather my thoughts. Where should I go in a city so derelict and deserted?

I checked my phone for the time. Within five minutes I’d found a map, a hotel and a guidebook.

And I hadn’t even stood up.

Bulgaria, you see, has free fast wifi streaming through its central station. That was my first clue that there’s more to Sofia, Bulgaria than first meets the eye…

Sofia, Bulgaria – Second City on the Iron Route Journey

In December 2011, I set out to travel from Istanbul to Berlin using a global interrail pass*. I wanted to find out more about the countries I knew so little about and to explore the past in terms of east and west and the former iron curtain. The #ironroute journey began here and progressed with travel articles about Istanbul and photos of Sofia.

You can read more about how it is progressing with these live updates - and for even more news, check out the #ironroute hashtag on twitter.

Have you ever visited Sofia, Bulgaria?

What were your first impressions?

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18 Responses to Sofia, Bulgaria: Empty & Lost

  1. Sebastian @ Off-The-Path.com December 11, 2011 at 11:51 pm #

    Nice article Abi. I’m living in Bulgaria for 5 months now and have been a couple of times in Sofia. To be honest, expect of the cathedral, there is not much beauty in the city. People are rude and ignorant, it smells bad and the air pollution is one of the worst of Europe! I only go there if I have to.

    I look forward to your next post about Bulgaria!

    • Abi December 30, 2011 at 7:32 pm #

      Ha! Well, you could probably swap that description for most capital cities. I know that when I lived in the south of France, people there were baffled as to why anyone would want to go to Paris – they used the same kinds of expressions when talking about the City of Lights as you just did here ;) I would love to have seen more of the rest of Bulgaria – and will bring my deeper impressions of Sofia along soon. Thanks for making me chuckle!

  2. Imperator December 12, 2011 at 8:26 am #

    I’ve been quite a lot of times, but the last time in 2005… First time ? I was arriving by train (again Interrail :) from Athens, so I was desperatelly hungry, extremelly bored (the railway from the Greek border to Sofia goes through the middle of nowhere). Yes, I was in May and this helps… It also helps that I can read cyrilic letters and I can understand a bit of Bulgarian (as I learned a bit of Russian in school). Railway station – depressing… I was howver lucky that a Bulgarian friend waited for me (no mobile phones, just the old way of doing appointments – a postcard from Athens: “I arrive on date X by the train from Atens, not sure at what hour :)… We went to the center and then to a fantastic food place – not sure it still exists – Mr. Punch… Then, I saw the Catheral, we strolled Vitosha street, to the Royal Palace, enjoyed an Astika on a terrace and we went back to the station… that was my last Interrail day on the way home, to Bucharest

    • Abi December 30, 2011 at 7:35 pm #

      That sounds like a lovely day! (There was no food between Istanbul and Sofia either – a note for the future: bring some with you!) It’s always good to have friends in cities – and I was unlucky in Sofia in that I didn’t know a soul. I still enjoyed the experience, though, I just had to work a little harder to dig out the best bits ;) PS – And as for arranging to meet someone by postcard?! That’s amazing. I missed someone in Istanbul when we both had smartphones…

  3. DTravelsRound December 12, 2011 at 7:37 pm #

    I never stopped in Sofia, mostly because people said it wasn’t anything fantastic. I still would have liked to have made it there, though. As for trains, I noticed a similar train station in Brasov … deserted old, tagged train, sludge-covered escalators (some of which didn’t work). Perhaps its an Eastern European thing? Great post, as usual!

    • Abi December 30, 2011 at 7:38 pm #

      Hmmm…Well, as it turned out the rail services were on strike (other than the train from Istanbul) so perhaps it looks completely different on other days. Central Sofia is really interesting – or it was to me as I haven’t travelled through the area before.

  4. Kathy December 13, 2011 at 12:10 am #

    At first sight I thought that photo was of the platform at Nis, in Serbia! I took the train from Nis to Sofia this past September, and arrived in Sofia after dark, thanks to long delays at the frontier. Having been warned that the area around the station was dicey after dark I reluctantly took a taxi to my hotel. Sofia did look much better by daylight! Although probably the best things were the Boyana Chapel and the National History Museum, a bit out of the center.

    • Abi December 30, 2011 at 7:43 pm #

      Interestingly, my next stop after Sofia was supposed to be Nis in Serbia! I was disappointed to miss it after Bulgaria went on strike, so at least I can console myself a little with your comment ;)

  5. OurPassportStamps~Karen December 30, 2011 at 2:30 am #

    We were in Sofia for 4 nights and used it as a base for Plovdiv and Rila Monastary. We then took the bus to Veliko Turnovo for 2 days before returning back to Sofia to return home.

    We found the city to be gray upon arrival ~ the weather, the interactions. It was sad. but the longer we stayed we enjoyed it more. It was like a raw onion that you needed to patiently peel and then cook to a carmelized sweetness

    As we continued our travels through Bulgaria we really appreciated the history we learned about ~ ancient, Roman and the most recent. When we were in school, not much was taught to us about Bulgaria. We also appreciated the artwork at the Rila Monastary and what a treasure this is. The architecture of Plovdiv and Veliko Turnovo was VERY charming. It is in Veliko Turnovo that we picked up a vase that sits on our counter and a Christmas ornament that hangs on our tree from a potter we met as we wandered the town.
    Bulgaria might not be on our top 10 list of places we have loved visiting.
    But it was an adventure that we are very happy we had!

    • Abi December 30, 2011 at 7:47 pm #

      I’ve heard great things about Plovdiv, so I hope I get to travel there one day. And yes, like you, I learned nothing at all about Bulgaria at school, so finding out about Bulgaria’s history was fascinating. I’m definitely glad I went but I’d agree with your assessment, which was very poetic!
      “It was like a raw onion that you needed to patiently peel and then cook to a carmelized sweetness.”
      Couldn’t agree more ;)

  6. Boyko Blagoev January 5, 2012 at 11:59 am #

    There’s definitely more to see in Sofia, it’s just not that obvious :) The city is a very rough diamond with a lot of untapped potential.

    You should have joined us for a Free Sofia Tour (check what our guests think about us and the city: http://www.freesofiatour.com/testimonials/)

    There are free walking tours around the world, so consider taking some, it’s great especially when locals organize it, they could show you all the secrets of the place!

    http://freesofiatour.com/blog/free-walking-tours

    Looking forward to seeing you in Sofia again,
    Best,
    Boyko
    Free Sofia Tour

    • Abi February 3, 2012 at 12:15 pm #

      I agree with you entirely – it’s not that obvious! This article is only about my first impressions – I did find more that I loved about Sofia but I haven’t written it up yet. (It’s coming, it’s coming…)

      I think your free tours sound fantastic – I would have loved to have met someone who knew the place really well when I was there. I almost did – but the person I was trying to meet had family problems. By the time I found out about your tours, it was too late. Next time – I hope!

  7. OurPassportStamps-Karen February 3, 2012 at 3:32 pm #

    Hi Abi…

    I just wanted to add this…if you are able to watch House Hunters International that goes to Veliko Turnovo, you will get a chance to view a bit of the architecture.

    AND……

    On the episode they show a couple buying from the exact pottery store we went into and the woman (shop owner/potter) that we bought the vase from that I mentioned in my previous post.

    No English spoken and everything is in Cyrillic and yet, it was such a fun, hand signaling, pantominining, bartering and smiles all around for everyone shopping experience and a true delight for us to see her on TV!!!!!

    The store is located on the main drag walking towards the castle from the Best Western, it will be on your left hand side!!!

    Buon Viaggio! Karen

    • Abi April 18, 2012 at 11:15 am #

      Ha! That’s something to watch out for next time around then! Thanks for the tip.

  8. sofia airport April 17, 2012 at 3:18 pm #

    Agree with some of the posters, Sofia is a under-appreciated European capital city although i expect that to change in the next few years as more people, especially from outside of Europe come to visit.

    Kudos to the guys at free sofia tours, an excellent service and a wonderful informative tour of our city.

    • Abi April 18, 2012 at 11:09 am #

      Yes, it’s a great idea, isn’t it. I only wish I’d been able to take them up on it!

  9. Charu Suri (@Butterflydiary) May 27, 2013 at 9:31 am #

    My good friend is from Bulgaria. Interestingly, she has nothing positive to say about her country, except the seafood. I hope the aftermath of communism will change and shift it from being less of a depressed ghost town to a truly sparkling democracy.

    • Abi King May 28, 2013 at 8:35 pm #

      That is interesting to hear. I’d like to go back now and see what a difference a year has made…And perhaps to visit in the summer. Winter often makes places look bleak…

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