It was hard to find, but then that was the idea.
A non-descript side street, a stained white wall. Paint peeling from the window frames and sidelong glances from passersby. My own breath hanging in the air before dissolving across the concrete.
A small metallic plaque, hidden from the main street, fixed flat against a line of intercom buttons.
Some words of English beneath the Cyrillic string: The Institute of Contemporary Art, Sofia.
I pressed the buzzer and waited, breathing clouds of fog across the glass. The conversation was brief, terse, confusing, but the end result was they let me in.
The ICA in Sofia commemorates its days from the communist era, when art other than official social realism was, literally, something that happened behind closed doors. I’ve arrived between exhibitions but they’ve graciously allowed me in.
Paint, rulers, chalk, a football, all the tools and muse of Bulgarian artists lie strewn across the floor.
I’d never have found this place at all had it not been for, of all things, a shiny travel app downloaded onto my iPhone.
I’d arrived in Bulgaria empty and lost. I had a map I couldn’t read, a language I couldn’t speak and a blockade on land travel both in and out of the country. After shivering through the haunting central churches and pounding the grey streets for hour after hour, I’d retreated to my hotel and searched for things to do.
Spotted By Locals
That’s when I found Spotted by Locals. You see, not that many travel apps cover Sofia. And those that do don’t provide geolocation. With a map in Cyrillic and a list in English, the details would have taken days to triangulate. On top of that, few places in the city have signs on them at all, another throwback to a time when visitors were unexpected and advertising unknown.
Spotted by Locals not only unearths trinkets and tips from, you guessed it, locals but it plots them on a map that you can follow as you walk. Without amassing huge roaming charges. Give thanks, all ye, to the advances in travel technology.
I’d never seen the need in cities like London or Paris, places too vast to corral such recommendations and, if I’m honest, places where I’ve had the luxury of knowing said locals anyway. Not so in Sofia.
Next up was Pri Orlite, an 18th floor restaurant showing the gilded spires, mountains and jade bronze rooftops that could belong in wintry Paris, Zagreb or Vienna.
Yet they weren’t; they were here in Sofia, a city whose slow beauty began to seep in through the milky afternoon light.
I’d found a key, a secret weapon, to a place that tried so hard to hide its soul.
And you can bet I was going to use it.
Disclosure: I travelled to Sofia with InterRail as part of the Iron Route project, which you can read more about over here. As for Spotted with Locals? Nothing to disclose, you suspicious people, you! Just a product I found and loved.