Posted by: Alex MacGregor | April 18, 2010

Stopover in Sofia

After getting an awesome and unexpected taste of Bulgaria, we were faced with the reason we originally came to this country in the first place: as a route between Turkey and Macedonia. In order to get to Skopje, Macedonia’s capital, from Plovdiv, you have to go via the capital of Bulgaria: Sofia (София in Cyrillic).

We had been warned that the capital is nothing like the pleasant Plovdiv–Bulgaria’s second biggest city–and is congested and noisy instead. We figured that after Maputo, Addis Ababa, and a host of other African cities, we were ready for anything.

We took an early train from Plovdiv and pulled into Sofia’s train station–this wonderful monolith–around 10AM.

We arrived in a state of confusion. Where is the central part of town? How do we get there? How do we get to Skopje? Is it possible to leave our bags at the station for a while while we look around and figure things out?

We figured the information desk would be the right place to go to ask these questions. We were wrong. I was unable to even get a perceptible “no” from the woman who sits behind the desk when I asked if she spoke English, but could tell everything I needed to know from her disinterested scowl. I coached Caroline on how to address her in a second attempt at info, but she too failed to even get a word out of the embittered worker.

We tried to find a luggage holding service with signs. There were three separate signs for different luggage desks: one had a suitcase with a key symbol, one had a suitcase with a question mark, and another had a suitcase with a clock. None of them were able to provide the needed service–most of them actually appeared to be defunct, signs for nothing.

Getting sick of the train station, we decided to head to the bus station, which a more helpful worker pointed out to us.

Inside, we found another information desk, so we decided to ask a few questions there. We asked if there were buses to Skopje from this station, and if it was possible to store luggage anywhere in the station. The lady answered the questions firmly “no”, giving each answer with growing impatience.

After a few minutes of just wanting to get out of Sofia as quickly as possible, we learned that the information lady was just plain wrong. Ten feet from where she was sitting we were able to buy Skopje tickets (we had to scour through hundreds of destinations offered by dozens of bus companies for the Cyrillic letters “Скопие” to figure this out), and there was a luggage-storing facility nearby as well.

We were all ready to set out and explore for a couple hours. The only problem: we knew nothing of Sofia. We had no guidebook for Bulgaria–we were just navigating by dots on a map until we got to Macedonia–and we didn’t even know which direction the center was. You might think the tourism department would post a map, but there was none in evidence.

Thankfully, we found a McDonald’s advertisement with an unlabeled map showing the McDonald’s locations around town. It appeared that if we walked perpendicularly to the rail lines, we would get to a part of town with numerous McDonald’s restaurants, which is probably also where other nice, touristy things are. And if not, at least there would be McDonald’s.

So we set off. Eventually, we found a McDonald’s! For providing more information to us than both government information desk workers combined, we rewarded them by spending our last few Lev eating there. There was nothing special like the McArabia sandwich I had in Cairo, but it was still excellent!

After lunch, we wandered aimlessly looking for things of touristic interest and trying to figure out what they were.

We saw some of Sofia’s nice, pretty government buildings…

…although not all of them are quite so pretty.

The streets aren’t quite as lovingly cared for as in Plovdiv, but there were still some nice spots.

A beautifully-converted shopping mall.

An Orthodox Church located in the middle of one of Sofia’s main intersections.

One of the largest synagogues in Europe is in Sofia, apparently.

We apparently missed some great stuff–no wonder when you have only a few hours in a city of 1.5 million, and no map–but had a good time nonetheless. As for Sofia itself, the city might not win the Olympics any time soon, but it’s a nice enough place. Certainly compared to Maputo, at least!


  1. […] It also ends up sending you through some places you wouldn’t make a huge effort to get to: Sofia, Bulgaria, perhaps, or Milan, Italy. We consider Phoenix part of the second […]

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