I landed at terminal 1 of the Sofia airport, and felt like I was landing in St. Kitts more than a big European city because the airport was so small. Then, when I asked where the metro station was (terminal 2) I realized that the airport was much bigger. To get to the second terminal, you have to take a shuttle. There are no signs for it, you just stand by departures and flag it as it passes. It went right past us and then backed into the dropoff road, parked, and waited. A bunch of people got on, but the driver was nowhere to be found. Eventually, he came back and drove us to terminal 2. The metro station there is quite pretty and felt much nicer than the other areas of the airport I'd seen so far. I took the metro to the main station and went off in search of food or the hostel, whichever I found first. I found the hostel, but just barely. It is exactly where the map says and has a sign, but it took me minutes after finding the sign to find the door it referred to. I checked in and dropped my stuff off at the room. I had booked a bed in the big dorm, which is to say, the attic. It is clearly a work in progress. The smell of fresh paint lingered in the air. There was construction dust on the floor. There were piles of unused furniture in all the corners. The lights are bare bulbs with no covers. I'm hoping it will be more presentable when done. However for the price I paid, getting a bed and a shower is really all I can expect, and the bathrooms were clean, so I can't really complain. The only thing I think they really need to take care of is that the "lockers" are tiny and can't fit a backpack, or even a large purse. As soon as I was settled, I started touring around. First up was food. Fortunately, there was a row of food stands between the hostel and where I was heading, so I was able to grab a crepe-like pastry filled with a berry jam. Because I wasn't sure if it would be open any of the other days I am here, I headed straight to the Sofia Synagogue. That was smart because it wasn't going to be open and it was gorgeous- totally worth seeing. I found it interesting to see all the designs on the walls and the amazing mosaic floors. Next, I headed to the Mosque, which is right by the synagogue. It seemed to be under renovation or something because there were piles of debris everywhere. The tiled walls were nice though. I wandered the park near the mosque and caught sight of what used to be the old Turkish baths. Next, I saw a building that looked like it was at one point in time a palace. (I later found out that it had been.) It contained an art museum and the ethnographic museum. Nobody was selling tickets for the ethnographic museum, though, and the door to that part was closed. It appeared to be closed, at least temporarily. That's ok though, I went to the art museum, whis was open. If you enjoy Dali and Picasso, you would enjoy the items they had on display at this art museum. If not, you probably would think that the art they displayed was a bit odd. Plus, the museum was very inexpensive. It was totally worth the price for people who like that kind of art. Right across the street from the palace are what used to be the palace gardens, but is now a friendly park. How friendly? The benches aren't bolted down. People were picking them up and moving them so that they could sit close to their friends and have a nice, face-to-face conversation. Some of the benches had chess boards on them, and there were a lot of guys playing chess. I noticed a board that nobody was using, or even close to. All the pieces were lined up, ready to play. I wonder if they leave them out like that overnight and in all weather. One other cool feature of the park was the amount of food carts. There were just enough that you could get ice cream or a drink, but not so many as to make it feel commercial. I found one cart selling corn. The guy had an area where the corn on the cob was cooking and then an area for when he cut it off the cob. He spooned some into a small ice cream cup for me, shook some cheese onto it, and covered it with another spoonful of corn. So cool! I bet it was healthier than the ice cream, and it was very juicy and sweet corn. Totally worth it. At the other end of the park from the palace, they have another very reasonably priced art museum. This one had more styles. I enjoyed one exhibition on "possibilties" where there were large white abstract sculptures. Then, behind each, the artist had photoshopped the "finished" version of the sculpture onto a picture of a location where the sculpture could go. I liked the statue he put on the moon. I also enjoyed a large hand giving the peace sign, but with bullets as the fingertips of the 2 fingers standing up. Upstairs, they had a collection of illustrations from famous books, from Pinocchio to Don Quixote. I found it all very interesting. Since the weather was getting a tad wet, I decided to continue seeing all the insides of the museums. Plus, they were all pretty cheap to get into- usually a dollar or 2. I entered the Archaeology museum and immediately saw a Roman sarcophagus, so I made the (incorrect) assumption that they had stuff from all over. Actually, everything there is from Bulgaria. The Romans controlled the area for a while, so it makes sense that they found some Roman artifacts. The Ottoman Turks were there for a while, so it made sense that they had some Turkish stuff. They had their own Christian kingdom for a while, and had pieces of an old church hanging on the walls. And of course, they had the older bronze and other such aged stuff as well. When I was there, they were having problems with on of their alarms, so every few minutes, we'd hear a loud beeping, as if somebody was getting too close to the artifacts. All I can say is that I don't recommend trying to touch or steal any museum pieces. At this point, I was pretty thirsty, so I went to get a drink. I asked the guy at a stand what the most Bulgarian drink he had was, and he gave me Boza. It's brown, so I asked if it was coffe or chocolate and was told, no, it's Boza. But what is Boza, I wanted to know. Is it dairy? (It is pretty thick.) No. It's boza. Fine. I got the bottle and started to drink it. It is unlimke anything I've had before. I can best describe it as tasting sour, burnt, and being really thick and gelatinous. I drank a bit more in an attempt to both figure out what it was and figure out if I liked it. I had no luck on the first, and wasn't totally sure about the second. It was sort of ok, except for the burnt. I wasn't a fan of the burnt part of the flavor. I ended up not finishing the bottle and getting somethingelse to quench my thirst.
At 6pm, the 365 organization runs a free tour of Sofia. They call themselves that because they run the tour every day, regardless of weather. Our guide, Slavyan, was amazing! The tour was more than worth the time and certainly more than worth the price. (Plan on leaving a nice tip because you'll love the tour.) Slavyan was funny and did a great job of sharing the history of Bulgarian and Sofia with us. He had great stories about the city that made all the places I had just seen on my own seem entirely new and different. I don't want to ruin it for you, so here are just some of the highlights: You'll notice that banks in Sofia all have little balconies on one door. That is the office of the head of the bank. It's not just a nice benefit for the good times. It's also his way of saying, "you can trust me with your money. If I lose it all, I'll jump off this balcony." So, they're called suicide balconies. The place where you can stand and see a church, mosque, and synagoge, all around the same spot is nicknamed "tolerance square." I was really impressed as a whole at the Bulgarian acceptance of others. They have a history of this, as they were one of the only countries that had some German control that were able to save all of their Jews from the Germans in WW2. And when we were by the St. Nedelya church, we were told of why the roof is newer than the rest of the building. Tragically, they had a large terrorist attack that was a convoluted attempt to assassinate their king (maybe a hundred years ago). The plan was first to assassinate some generals. Then plant a bomb in a church where the funeral was being held. When the king was at the funeral- BOOM. Step 1 went off so well, I'm not sure why they didn't just target the king directly instead of the generals. They didn't get to just 1 general, but several. Step 2, planting the bomb, worked well because they were able to get a church insider to lace the ceiling with explosives. The only problem was that step 3 was executed while the king was still on his way to the funeral from the other funeral caused by the excessive success of step 1. So, instead of assassinating the king, the terrorists just killed hundreds of Bulgarian mourners. Go on the tour to hear these and more stories. I promise you'll have a great time. At the end of the tour, I asked our guide where to go get some good Bulgarian food. He recommended a great place, Izbata, not too far from where the tour ended. I would have never found it myself as it's tucked away in a basement, but the food there was great. I ate with some people I met on the tour who were on a "family history" research vacation, and they were able to tell me about all the traditional Bulgarian dishes that they grew up with. But I don't know if the dishes would turn out the same elsewhere. At the restaurant, the tomatoes were extra tomatoey, the peppers were so flavorful, and the cheese was different than cheeses you can get elsewhere. I feel like they must have grown up with a poor imitation of Bulgarian food. As I walked back to the hostel, I noticed a lot of people out, enjoying the nightlife. I considered going on one of the pub crawls, but decided that tomorrow night might be a better night for that.