Porcupyn's Blog

August 6, 2018

South Africa Trip – Day Thirteen

Filed under: Family,Travel — Porcupyn @ 3:07 pm

After a quick glimpse of the sunrise, we landed in the desert that’s Doha! This time there were no miscues in taking the people mover shuttle inside the terminal to get to our gate πŸ™‚

I remember reading about this sculpture in the Qatar magazine. Apparently it took quite some effort to get it installed.

A short turnaround later, we were airborne once more now bound for Sofia. Only in the Middle East will you see such opulence manifested in earthscapes that you would rarely sight anywhere else.

Unlike the trip down to Africa, this time our flight took the most direct route (no need to fly over the UAE anyway!) and we flew directly from the Persian Gulf into Iran

It was too bad that we were not that hungry on this Doha-Sofia flight because a) the plane was pretty empty and b) the flight attendants were very friendly and kept pampering us with food and juice. I did help myself to three cups of mango (my favourite) juice, only one of which is pictured here!

The rest of this post will feature various land forms that we passed over enroute to Sofia.

There appeared to be many areas with nice deep canyons but not much greenery around them. Wonder what they look like at the ground level!

A dam … looks lovely from the air

A view of the downstream canyons – I bet there are white water rafting opportunities to be had down there!

More canyons in the distance … and an almost dry riverbed


We were getting close to the Black Sea now

Some clouds for a change

Black Sea

Interesting incident that happened at our host’s a couple of days later. In conversation, he mentioned something about folks going to “our sea” for summer holidays. I wondered aloud “which sea?” to which he replied “Black Sea, of course!” Funnily enough, I have never thought of the Black Sea as a big sea in its own right, probably because I’ve not seen it at the ground level. But also maybe because it is not broadly connected (if you neglect the small canal that connects it to the Mediterranean) with the rest of the Earth’s oceans like all of the other “Sea”s are! Black Sea, to me, is more like a mega huge lake.

After a short while, we were in Bulgarian air space.

The countryside looked a lush green with some mountainous areas as well. And soon, we started a smooth approach into Sofia and landed.

Happy Bulgaria!!

It was a clear, beautiful, sunny day!

Out host had informed us that for a small fee, he would be happy to pick us up from the airport to his boutique hotel. Though the proposed fee was slightly more than the available public transportation options, we had opted to go with him especially as that meant that we did not have to go around looking for the place (though we were slated to land right around lunch). It was a very good decision, as he was waiting for us right outside baggage claim and customs.

Our first view of Sofia was quite refreshing indeed. I had wanted to spend a day in Belgrade, but had been overruled. So, I had been a bit miffed about Sofia. But Sofia turned out to be great. In fact, we all wished that we had spent more time there – folks were quite friendly in spite of the obvious language barrier especially for the older folks.

Our host was really great. He had obviously prepared and practiced a nice speech about his country and his city and it was really entertaining to hear and also educational to learn (I had not done any homework on Sofia). I felt bad a couple times when I stopped him to ask questions … and he had to refresh back to the point where I had interrupted him πŸ™‚

Driving through Sofia … from the airport to the CBD

One thing that is an eyesore in many places in Europe is graffiti. But the side of the host’s lodge didn’t have any graffiti. I asked if folks didn’t put graffiti there – he said that they did, and each time they did, he used to clean it up. Apparently, after that repeated a few times, they gave up!!

Other than the graffiti, Sofia was a really neat and clean place! This square was close to where we were staying and Baab and I went towards the local metro train station for a short walk immediately after we freshened up.

An obelisk in the square

I have no clue what the ad is saying. Do you?

On the tram lines πŸ™‚

Underground metro station

We stopped by Lidl on the way back

Sample prices – one Euro equals two Bulgarian Lev

By about 3 pm, everyone was ready to venture boldly out into a city where we didn’t speak the local language for sure, and hoped to get by with our English!

We walked over to this park that was close by. But before we got there, we had taken advice from our host. Originally, the plan was to go for two free guided walking tours of downtown Sofia – one was to be a basic walk and the other one a food sampler walk. Baab had already figured out the times and which walks to take when.

But our host advised us to do the basic walking tour in the evening and the food sampler one tomorrow. The reason being that if we liked a specific location that we visited in the evening tour, we could plan to revisit it tomorrow. Similarly, if we scheduled the food sampler tour for the afternoon, we could probably eat out at the specific place where we liked the food samples. Besides, he said that it might be a good idea to take a tram to the base of the Mount Vitosha and hike up to see Sofia from a height.

So, we first walked over to the nearby park which was on the way to downtown Sofia. Along the way, we managed to purchase something to eat from a roadside pastry shop as we were very hungry. It was a bit difficult to communicate as we needed to verify that the item was vegetarian and also figure out how much it cost and whether the lady accepted credit cards or would need to be paid in cash (Baab and I had withdrawn cash from an ATM at the train station we visited earlier, so we were ready either way). For some reason that I don’t recall anymore, rather than eating the cheese bread that the rest of the family got, I got myself some heavenly baklava (Turkish influence was very evident here and elsewhere in Sofia).

Finally, we got to the park that had a mall with restaurants in it. In the park were were a lot of families with kids of all ages and sizes. In addition, there were teens doing the same thing I’ve seen teens do here in the USA – jumping stairs on their skateboards! But it was very hot (I wonder what the scenery is like right now over there – I bet all these areas will be under snow!) and humid indeed. We were sweating freely. Thankfully, we had some – not a lot of – water with us and managed to share it and stay hydrated.

These fountains and surrounding picnic areas in the park appeared to me to be from the Cold War vintage. They didn’t look too much older than a few decades and didn’t look like they were constructed recently either.

Near the mall were these tables and chairs – likely for folks to get their food from the restaurants in the mall and eat here (as you can see, not too many folks were braving the hot sun to sit and eat here – they were sitting in the shade of the trees around the park, not necessarily eating either as it was just about 3 pm or so)

One level lower was this fountain that was part of the mall structure

Looking back at the fountains and the park from the mall

It would not be right for me to not include a photo of the beautiful flowers that were nicely planted along the fountains

I had not really researched Sofia a lot, and not knowing the local language we were at a disadvantage, so my descriptions and mentions of places and locations might or might not be accurate. So, please take those with a pinch of salt πŸ˜‰ However, photos are exactly what we saw, no alterations there (except I might not be accurate when I say where a specific photo was taken!)!!

After spending some time at the park described in the previous post, we walked along what appeared to be the main drag through town (which I might be wrong in describing). What we did see were mountains way ahead and way behind us as we walked on the road. On both sides of the road were restaurants, souvenir shops and, if I recollect correctly, department stores as well. And every so often there was a little place in the wall – a mom and pop store seamlessly fitting into the picture. Though it was just about four pm, folks were all over the place having coffee, dinner, or just conversing with one another. It didn’t give the feel of a regular workday, but then maybe folks get out of work early over there.

Folks out and about with the backdrop of the mountain

Our goal after strolling around, was to get to the place where the walking tour was supposed to start from. The time we needed to be there was six pm, as I recall. Before getting there though, we wanted to get something hot to drink. Kids went with hot chocolate, somehow conveying their order to the slightly older lady who didn’t do English. When my turn came, I wanted tea – hot tea. The tea they had came with lemon and honey she said. Without thinking through i, I asked her to add milk to mine. Guess what? The milk curdled … and I was at a point where I did not want to go through the hassle of describing what I wanted yet another time – and I thought we were getting delayed anyway to get to our destination – so I somehow managed to finish that “tea”!!

If you know one word – Serdika – you will know half of Sofia’s downtown! And I’m only half kidding. It appeared like there was a Serdika local train station, a Serdika long distance train station and a Serdika long distance bus station. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We managed to find the walking tour meeting point without much ado, especially because there were like almost fifty folks loitering around in the designated location. We got a very enthusiastic guide who spoke very good English. We walked through a couple of places that were public baths, the above photo location which was the local Serdika close to the statue of Sophia and contained ruins from the time of the Roman Empire, there was a place of worship of a saint where you could have your wishes come true, a yellow brick road that had huge buildings of the Eastern Bloc vintage from the Cold War times and a church dedicated to a Russian named IIRC Nicholas. The next few photos are from the walking tour, and I apologize if I am unable to describe each location that well (my bad – it’s been six months almost since when we were there!)

Ruins at Serdika

One of the mom and pop stores

I loved the public transportation in Sofia for sure. We only rode a few underground trains and surface trams (and especially no buses, as we were a bit afraid we’d get lost – transportation on rails is a bit tougher to get lost on), but along all our walks, we found folks at tram stops and bus stops patiently waiting for their mode of transportation to appear (that said, the folks in this photo are waiting to cross the street)

Talking of crossing the street, Sofia conditioned us to a specific behaviour that almost got us grief in Budapest the next day. Specifically, all pedestrian signals in Sofia – that we encountered – emit warning beeps at regular intervals when the pedestrian green is about to end. When the main traffic lane signal turns to yellow, the frequency of the beep increases to signify the urgency and then stops when the pedestrian signal turns to red. In Budapest, we leisurely crossed a road not realizing that the pedestrian signal had turned to red already – there had been no beeps at all! Another interesting thing I noticed was that (and I hope I am correct when I say I saw it in Sofia, as it could’ve been in Budapest as well) in certain places the pedestrian signal showed a green walking pedestrian. When the faster warning beeps start to sound, the figure transforms to a green running pedestrian! πŸ™‚

One thing that happened was that during the walking tour, we didn’t really get time to get inside any of the buildings shown to us. As advised by our guide, we were supposed to come back the next day if we wished to spend more time at a specific building or location. We had planned to do so; however a few things went against us – a) we didn’t really have a good idea of where all we went, as we were not following along closely with our phones, b) we didn’t end up with a lot of free time the next day and c) we were too pooped to go around as much as we could have either.

I bet there will be much more ice on the ground right now and folks wearing outfits like this would freeze! But back then, we were sweating freely. Europe was under a heat wave. Temperatures were regularly in the 90 degree F range.

This was something ubiquitous – some sort of national guards in their ceremonial position. I saw similar folks in Budapest as well as in Prague. These folks have a really tough job. It is not easy to stand still as a statue as these folks do. I believe they can move only after fifteen minute intervals or so.

More ruins. Our guide was especially happy to show us the church in the background as it is secreted away behind huge buildings all around it.

This I believe was near a National Museum or Opera House or some such. I distinctly remember the guide mentioning that folks (friends, dates, etc) typically come here to meet up in the afternoon/evening in this area.

I don’t remember where this photo is from. It could be either at the place we stayed overnight or at the restaurant we went for dinner the one night we stayed in Sofia. It was a nice place, though the service was very slow. It was the first of three times in Sofia that we got buttermilk when we wanted milk (poor Baab!). The other two times were when I purchased buttermilk thinking it was milk (I still don’t know how one distinguishes milk from butter milk at a Sofia supermarket! facepalm). We got pizza and some sort of spinach lasagna in the restaurant. Both were very tasty and we were full once we were done.

Mt Vitosha

– land in and take off from Doha
– land in Sofia
– picked up by Ludmil and given brief history of Sofia
– walking tour of Sofia in the evening

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