My first taste of Eastern Europe
It’s been a while, hasn’t it? It’s been a while since I’ve “vacationed” and it’s definitely been a while since I’ve ventured overseas. Now that COVID has loosened its grip a little, I can finally get back to traveling. I’ve missed it.
This year’s trip was my first adventure into Eastern Europe. After returning from two weeks in Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania, I find myself wondering why I didn’t attempt a trip to Eastern Europe earlier. If you find yourself in the same boat, quit wondering and just go already.
Eastern Europe was refreshing in several ways:
- The price. The American dollar went a long way in Eastern Europe. A loooong way. Bulgarian Lev is the currency here. Credit cards are widely accepted.
- Tourism isn’t a huge thing – yet. Crowds of tourists were few and far between. As long as you’re prepared to be a bit flexible and temper your expectations, the lack of tourism was energizing.
- Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania had every bit as much of culture, beauty, and good food as Western Europe does. Do yourself an huge favor and order a shopska salad upon arrival in Bulgaria.
- Bulgarian and Serbian are both Slavic languages and both countries use the Cyrillic alphabet. If you aren’t familiar with any Slavic languages, this may make your head hurt a bit. Many younger people speak English, but be prepared to add gestures as you are communicating.
Stop number one on my 2 week adventure was Sofia, Bulgaria.
Getting to Bulgaria wasn’t horrible from my little home in the Southwest. It involved one layover at the larger, Dallas Fort Worth Airport where I encountered an hour delay, and consequently an incredibly rushed layover at London, Heathrow. Because the UK is no longer an EU nation (thanks Brexit) and Bulgaria is an EU nation, you’ve got to reroute through security. After a brisk jog to the gate, my friend and I were relieved to find that a English girls’ soccer/football team had held things up at the boarding gate, giving us the few extra minutes we needed to make our flight. This might be the first time I’ve maybe ever been happy to fly with a plane full of kids. (Note: if you are connecting in a large European airport, I’d suggest you have 2+ hours to make it through). The flight from Heathrow to Sofia was about 2 1/2 hours and customs and immigration in Sofia were easy peasy.
Sofia is both the capital and the largest city of Bulgaria and like a lot of cities in the Balkans, it’s seen a lot of history and a lot of change. There’s a great article here https://www.britannica.com/place/Sofia on the history of the city, but what struck me most about the city center was the juxtaposition of modern buildings right next to archaeological finds from the 6th Century or earlier.
Sofia possesses a pedestrian center where you can (mostly) walk without concern of motor traffic. And since our hotel was less than a mile from the pedestrian center, my friends and I enjoyed the easy walk. A plethora of adorable sidewalk restaurants and bars where you could enjoy a leisurely paced meal or drink, tons of interesting and historic buildings, stunning churches, and archaeological digs in various states of completion lined the streets. If the weather is cooperating, you can also see Mt. Vitosha off in the distance.
PS: when you stop for refreshments, Bulgarian wine is delicious.
Make sure you stop by the strikingly striped Regional History Museum of Sofia. The museum is housed in what used to be the central mineral baths of the city and it is eye catching – you cannot miss it. The tiled sidewalks are so detailed and beautiful. You’ll also notice around the building that there are several water fountains where you can collect water or get a drink directly from the mineral springs running under Sofia. The water in Bulgaria was some of the most delicious I’ve ever had and is safe to drink.
Now, if you’ve done your homework and read the link above, you’ll see that area upon which modern day Sofia sits, has had settlements since the 8th Century BCE! As the development of the modern day city moves foward, more and more sites have been excavated. You can view several sites on a 15 minute stroll, including the Saint Petka of the Saddlers Church and a pristinely preserved dig site within the Serdika II Metro Station. (I’m not kidding. Descend into the subway station and take a look!)
We didn’t get into Saint Petka, sadly, but you can take a moment to appreciate the short doorway which was constructed to be precisely that way to prevent raiders on horseback from ransacking the church. Standing down next to Saint Petka, looking up at the modern roadways and buildings, you are struck by how old this city really is.
Sofia, like Belgrade and Bucharest to come, has this strange triangulation of buildings – some very modern (McDonald’s and Starbucks have both made their way to Eastern Europe), some beautiful and historic, and some remnants of Soviet occupation. The communist style, block buildings are a stark contrast to the brightly colored and striped buildings of the older eras.
I guess you can’t talk about Eastern Europe without talking about Communism and the Soviet occupation and what was once Yugoslavia. For Bulgaria, the Soviet Union invaded in 1946. Most of the sad, block buildings you’ll see were built in the 1950s. Of the remnants from that era, you immediately get a feel for what it felt like to live in an occupied country. If I had to describe those buildings in one word, it would be: depressing.
We were told, that when the People’s Republic of Bulgaria was established in 1990 that the people of Bulgaria were given the opportunity to purchase their apartments in those old buildings and that their interiors today are nice and modern. We also were told that many, especially the older generations, didn’t hate the Communist era. While life may have been restricted in many ways, they had jobs, they had food, and everyone had a place to live. Many of these Balkan countries are still struggling to find their footing post revolution. And while people certainly don’t wish for the past or the life under dictatorship, they are loathe to say the current issues of hunger, mental health crises, and homelessness are better than the occupied times. Life in the Balkans also seemingly varied by great degrees dependent upon each man in power. Bulgaria, for instance, fared better under Josip Broz Tito, than say Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic or Romania under Nicolae Ceaucescu.
I’ll admit, like many Americans, I assume, that I was and still am woefully ignorant about much of Eastern European history – particularly the times between WWII and present day. I hope to do better. Travel is really good for that – opening your eyes and realizing you know precious little about many parts of the world.
Let’s talk about churches. The Balkans reminded me of my home in New Mexico in that you are never, never more than a stone’s throw away from a church. Most Bulgarians are of the Orthodox Christian religion and there is no shortage of spectacular churches to visit in Bulgaria. There are also spectacular architectural examples of Catholic churches, synagogues and mosques in Sofia). Ornate and painstakingly decorated, I’d highly recommend popping into one or two. Be prepared to walk in on an Orthodox service. This happened to us several times and it really is no issue so long as you are respectful.
Orthodox services are more, what I’ll call, free flowing than other religious services I’ve witnessed. While there are similarities in some respects to the Catholic religion (making the sign of the cross, lighting of candles, the saints, etc.), there are also distinct differences. There are rarely any seats or pews in the Orthodox churches. Parishioners stand and/or kneel for the service. On occasion, you’ll see a few seats lining the outside of the sanctuary and those seats are intended for parishioners that need to sit. The altars are restricted to the priests, who are married by the way.
Please note that you will need to be dressed respectfully to enter the churches in Bulgaria. That typically means that your shoulders and knees should be covered. Please also make yourself aware of whether or not photography is allowed in the churches you are visiting. In many, you can take photos, without flash. In others you will need to purchase a photography pass. Most cost me about 5-10 Bulgarian Lev. That’s approximately $2.00 – $5.00 USD. In a few churches, photography will not be allowed. Signage on church doors will clearly let you know and you don’t need to read Bulgarian – just look for the camera icon.
We stumbled upon Sveta Nedelya Church on the pedestrian walkway and it is stunning. I’d highly recommend popping in here. You will need to purchase a photo pass. You can do so at a small window just inside the church. The lady working the window the day we dropped in did not speak English – pantomiming a camera got me what I needed. You can also buy candles here if you’d like to light one. The original church was thought to have been constructed in the 10th Century.
Don’t miss Church of St. George Rotunda. An interesting church in a round building, probably built over a pagan temple. No photos inside and you’ll be promptly called out if you try by church staff. This little brick building is though to be the oldest building in Sofia and there are some great ruins behind the church.
If you aren’t a fan of churches, there are many other interesting historic buildings, of course. Favorites were the Ivan Vazov National Theater and the Royal Palace, which now houses the National Gallery.
We didn’t get to go into this next church, but I really wanted to. Constructed in the Russian style, St. Nicholas the Miracle Maker is gorgeous from the outside. Green roofs with golden domes are what earned this church the title of prettiest church in Sofia. On my next visit, I’m going inside.
If you take a short walk from St. Nicholas, you can see two more astonishing churches: the oldest church in Sofia, the Saint Sofia Church, and the massive St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral. Saint Sofia dates to about the 4th Century. It’s a quieter and less ornate church but is definitely worth seeing. Next door, you can be overwhelmed by the size of the cathedral.
This only scratches the surface of what Sofia has to offer. It’s a large city with an even larger history and I think I could spend several days here. Maybe one day I’ll make it back, but we were off to Rila and the fantastical and astonishing Rila Monastery.
Whether you are religious or not, the Rila Monastery should be a stop on your trip to Bulgaria. I’ve never seen anything like it. Named for St. John of Rila, the monastery is breathtaking and is located in the mountains about 70 miles from Bulgaria. John of Rila, was a hermit in the Bulgarian mountains and it was his followers who established the site and monastery in Rila.
The monastery is still a working monastery. At one time, more than 300 monks resided here. Now, the number has dwindled to about 10. In addition to its spiritual importance, schools were founded here.
There is a great little museum. There is a station to fill your water bottles with delicious, cold spring water and there are bathrooms. (We found our travel tp was useful here. And we encountered our first Turkish toilet! i.e. a hole in the ground. There are many modern facilities in the Balkans, but you may encounter a stall in which you simply squat to go potty.)
Tranquil, calm. Paintings of scenes from the Bible adorn the outside of the church. I’d highly recommend dropping into the church when the monks are having prayers, if you can. It’s soothing. Please note, absolutely no photography is allowed inside the church (or the museum) and visitors are expected to remain quiet on the grounds. There are a few more rules for visiting the church.
Leaving the Rila Monastery behind, we headed to cross the border from Bulgaria into Serbia. I’ll remind you that Bulgaria is an EU country; Serbia is not and crossing the border into Serbia went exactly how I expected it would…
Check out more photos of Bulgaria on my Flickr!