Bulgaria: Sofia (6.11–6.15)

I was 14 the last time I visited the country in which I was born. I had some understanding and appreciation of the culture and the history I encountered, but this time around I’m even more appreciative. These past two weeks have been packed to the gills with visiting family and friends, sightseeing, beach-going, and even traveling to another country altogether. I’m grateful that images have metadata since that’s made the organization and timeline of this trip a lot more straightforward. And off we go!

Day 1: 6.11

The first day was mostly travel. We left Boston Logan around midnight, into the longer leg of the trip. Nine hours to Istanbul were spent alternating sleeping and eating. For the record, I’ve always loved airplane food, but I think that Turkish Airlines were objectively good. We landed in Istanbul tired but in great spirits. The airport is busier than any I’ve ever seen. It’s impossible to find somewhere to sit down, but again, the food is great, which made the three-hour layover bearable. The last leg to Sofia was quick, thankfully, and we were greeted by our very excited grandparents.

After a delicious dinner of stuffed peppers (thanks, Babo!), we went rather quickly and meekly to bed.

Day 2: 6.12

We started the morning with coffee and pastries at the bakery near my grandma’s apartment. The walk through Mladost—the district of Sofia where my grandma lives—felt familiar. I love the look of the old, Soviet-era architecture; I’ve always been a fan of Brutalism.

After the morning coffee, we made our way to the city center to meet up with my grandpa for lunch. When I was younger, I didn’t make an effort to understand where things were when we went, but this time I tried to keep up on Google Maps, and I think I have a better awareness of the city now. I think it would have been even better if we took more public transportation, but with four of us, the cost of a taxi was comparable to bus/metro tickets, and much more convenient. For lunch, we went to one of my grandpa’s favorite restaurants near the apartment.

The city center of Sofia features a large park called Borisova Gradina (Борисовата Градина), where my parents and grandparents took me to play when I was younger. It’s a huge park, with many playgrounds, ponds, flower gardens, coffee shops, and even the Bulgarian Army Stadium. I remember playing on a stone elephant slide, which is still there, even though the surrounding playground has been updated. Throughout the park, along the paths, there are statues honoring Bulgarian writers and cultural leaders. I wish I had had the opportunity to learn about Bulgarian history in school, but seeing all those monuments to culture has inspired me to do some learning on my own.

After the walk in the park, we made our way back to Mladost and picked up some groceries from the store for dinner. My mom had also been helping my grandma clean and organize the apartment, and we went to the home improvement store across the street to pick up some organizational stuff, too.

Day 3: 6.13

Day 3 continued the organizational theme with a quick trip to Ikea. Nothing there that isn’t available at Ikea USA but still fun. There’s not really a taxi stand at Ikea, though, so we were wondering how we were going to get back when we saw a taxi parked in the lot. The poor guy was eating his lunch when we accosted him for a ride, but he seemed happy enough to oblige.

We spent some time at home, going through old pictures with my grandma and learning some family history, then we had a nice lunch at home. For dinner, we went to the same restaurant that we did the night before, to have lunch with my grandpa again and with my grandpa’s cousin, Reni. There was more family history, from the other side of the family, and stories late into the night.

Day 4: 6.14

We finally got to do some solid sightseeing on Day 4! We took a taxi to the city center and started walking. We saw the University of Sofia, the oldest academic institution in the country, founded in 1888. The statues at the entrance are the founders, Evlogi Georgiev and Hristo Georgiev.

We saw the Alexandar Nevsky Cathedral, the second largest cathedral in the Balkan Peninsula. You’re not allowed to take pictures of the interior, so I don’t have any. It was much darker than I remembered, a gaping cavernous maw of Orthodox idols. I like to visit churches every once in a while and light a candle for my grandma. There’s something that feels alive, maybe the way the footsteps shuffle on the floor or the way people’s whispers echo and come back to you.

We also walked to see the National Theater, the National Library, and the National Assembly building.

We went shopping on Graf Ignatiev Street. We stopped for lunch at a Doner kebab place that was absolutely incredible. Then we met up with my grandmother’s best friend, Ophelia, who told me some of the stories of my grandmother’s younger years over delicious desserts. Finally, we wrapped up the long day with dinner with my great uncle. It’s been so great seeing so much family!

Next up, part 2: Varna and the Black Sea!

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