Soooo sorry for the delay in writing this:
Bulgaria has really blossomed with its entry into the EU. You will see signs everywhere that another construction project has been funded by the European Union. Fear not fellow adoption traveler--- Bulgaria is indeed a part of Western Europe. You will want for very little (other than maybe a non-squatter toilet in the train station). Tap water is fine to drink (actually tastes good) Grocery stores are well stocked and will have many familiar brands. Streets are safe and the people are friendly.
You will land in a wonderful new terminal in Sofia—Immigration and customs are a snap. All signs are in English as well as Bulgarian. No Visa required! No drama, No pain!
Except for us====
Our bags got lost--- There are 2 companies that handle lost luggage. One seems to actually work for Lufthansa. They are very nice and attentive. The other company works for everyone else (including Air France and Delta if you are Skyteam like us). This company STINKS. The EU air compact is just an annoyance to them and they will totally ignore your legal passenger rights. Here’s hoping that your luggage makes it with you (or you fly Lufthansa)!
We were picked up by Toni and Marti and they drove us to our hotel. (Hotel Budapest near downtown in a land of used auto part stores). It is a quick drive. We arrived on a Saturday evening and the airport and the roads on the drive were all pretty much empty.
If you need to take a cab---- cabbies in Bulgaria were once among the worst in Europe. AOL keywords--dirty, nasty, smelly, and thieves. Times have changed. From what we saw firsthand and what we have read--- the government has done a great job cleaning up the cabbie racket! When you get in a cab, make sure it is metered. Before you close the door make sure the meter is at zero. The cabbie will punch in the minimum fare and from there you have no worries--- round up to the nearest Lev--- or more if you like.
Every cab experience we had in Bulgaria was top notch!
It is really hard to judge the city right now. They are building a new subway line and everything is torn up. We saw the major sites and they are neat, but with all the chaos and construction, Sofia did not seem to have the charm of Kyiv or Belgrade. I’m sure once the work is done things will be different.
You can easily travel the central district on foot- We stayed at Hotel Budapest which is a ½ mile walk to the shopping zone. We still were able to haul our old tired selves around town. Like much of Eastern Europe, there is a cool dichotomy between the pre Soviet romantic days and the grand monolithic statist architecture.
Sofia Dining notes:
We only spent 2 half days in Sofia so I’m sure this is incomplete—but---
You will find:
· 2 Starbucks (But do not ask for black ice tea “it is not possible”) (free Wifi)
· McDonalds every few blocks (free Wifi)
· KFC/Dunkin Donuts
· Gyro (actually Doener) places on every corner
· Subway (free wifi)
· Happy Grill (My choice as best “local” food without drama) Free Wifi and lots of grilled meats
If you are a beer drinker, we tried several--- My fave was Shumensko—it’s an InBev beer but nice, light and cheap!
We did not take any public transportation while in Sofia—there is a tram right in front of the hotel, but the construction detour does not really go where we wanted.
Again we were in Sofia for such a short time.. we made sure we saw the old Roman church, Mosque, and the large park--- The Soviet Tsum and performing arts center as well as St Sofia and several other church sites. Again, the key sights did not impress like Kyiv, Belgrade, or other sites in Western Europe, but they did have their own unique charm.
The Lev or Leva (plural) is your friend.
As of this writing 1 lev = about 70 cents USD
I find it easiest to just assume that a Lev= a dollar and just consider that things are a bit pricey!
Prices in Bulgaria are a bit cheaper than Western Europe, but not as affordable as Ukraine. A Big Mac meal will set you back about 5 USD, but a beer is only about 75 cents for a pint draft.
I would suggest just getting your Lev out of an ATM—there is no need to change at a bank—do NOT change at any of the street vendors or at the airport. You WILL be ripped off—if someone approaches you to make a change on the street prepare to run and call for the police.
We never felt unsafe while anywhere in Bulgaria. It was a little spooky walking to and fro from the hotel in the “used car parts district” of Sofia but never felt threatened –even walking by a street “beer party” between the hotel and the city the locals were respectful and actually pretty nice.
I did and Mary talked me out of it. That was a mistake. Driving is way more western than Ukraine. If you can drive in a big city in the US you, can drive in Bulgaria. Be defensive and be prepared for aggressive drivers (especially young men). Rental cars are plentiful; gas stations are easy and very western. You can’t beat the freedom that a car gives. If I had to do it again I probably would have wanted to rent a car.
Car VS Mass Transit
Our Bulgarian team was not crazy about us wanting to take the train on our own to Shumen to visit Jordan’s grave. We insisted and they helped us get tickets. It was a snap-- Seats were assigned. Second class has no AC, but was fine. No food (even on the long haul from Shumen to Sofia) and the potty was with no paper and merely a hole in the car dumping the goods onto the track—but in all it was a very relaxing way to travel. We were in a compartment with a grandma and her granddaughter. When they realized that we were not going to be able to chat with them they scurried off and found another compartment with a kid and some people that spoke Bulgarian. So we had the 6 berth to ourselves. It is a good chance to nap and read and see the sights—DO remember to take supplies—Snacks, Water, pop (if you like) and TP.
Bus travel is also quite popular. We were considering flying into Turkey rather than Sofia. We would take a 3 hour bus ride to get us to Burgas (Deyan’s town) for less than 20 bucks PP. Buses are modern, have chemical potties and many actually have wifi! They are reported to be quicker and more reliable than trains between major destinations, but between our love for trains and our team’s fear based on numerous recent bus accidents we decided to take the train!
Sofia and Beyond:
We were in Burgas on the Black Sea and Blagoevgrad in the mountains south of Sofia. Each town was a bit different, but really more the same when it comes to smaller city life in Bulgaria. More on that in a bit.
What to expect?
We found very few confident English Speakers. If you are patient and kind, many folks will finally break down and try to talk with you, but they are very shy and most have never seen a “Real American”. Do not be afraid to point, grunt, and make funny gestures to get your point across--- make it entertaining for you and your new friends will like it too!
MAJOR CULTURAL NOTE OF IMPORTANCE!
In Bulgaria head bobs and nods are BACKWARDS from here in the states—back and forth means YES--- up and down means NO--- better to say DA (yes) and Nee (no)--- keep your head still!
Neighborhood stores are small and pretty well stocked to cover your day to day needs-they look a bit scary on the outside but are fine—do pay attention to “use by” dates on meat and dairy.
Several major European chains are now in Bulgaria—Kauffmann, Lidl and Metro are all as good and as HUGE as any megamart in the US. Prices are way better than the little stores—remember you need to plop a coin in to get the shopping cart to come loose.
They have several western style drug stores, but remember--- prescriptions and other pills and remedies are at the APOTEK (usually a little hole in the wall) NOT at the thing that looks like a Walgreens!
We ate everything we saw and loved everything we ate (except for the doener in Sofia with mayo, a pickle and fries on it). No need to fear. Street Hot Dogs are good! Crepes? Yum. Pizza? Yep. Ice Cream-- delish! Don’t be afraid--- enjoy! Bottled water is everywhere. Unlike Western Europe you do not have to worry much about getting fizzy water--- most is No Gas!
Non Fast Food Places.
We covered MC and other zippy dines earlier---- The big surprise for us was that hotel food was not only very good, but affordable! Some of our favorite dishes:
Most salad comes sans dressing---there is vinegar and oil on the table for you
Shopska Salad--- Tomato, Cucumber, onion (maybe red or green pepper) and yummy Bulgarian White Cheese (shredded fine—flavor a bit like feta)
Sheppard Salad. Like Shopska… add diced ham and eggs
Salad Olivia or Russian Salad--- Pretty much like egg salad with sausage
Caprese -- Tomato Mozzarella and onion
Carrot and cabbage salad--- shredded veggies--- that is all
We were there in summer and never once saw soup on a table nor on a menu
It is very Mediterranean. Any combination of olives, cheese, nuts and meats you might find in Greece or Italy.
CHEESE! Breaded and Fried, Stuffed into a pepper and fried, Sautéed with eggs then fried.
In the summer pretty much grilled meat ruled the day---except at the beach where it was grilled fish.
Expect lots of pork and chicken—beef (or veal—terms seem to be interchangeable there) is very expensive and from our team not at all recommended (since it is pricy it tends to sit longer and you run a greater risk of spoilage)
There are traditional dishes that are similar to our stews—they are cooked in individual crocks and very yummy.
Stuffed cabbage, grape leaves, and peppers are popular, but not in the summer
Veggies are wonderful and fresh during the summer. They are often grilled.
Potatoes are everywhere—boiled, fried --plain or with onions-- and French Fries with the yummy sirene cheese (a must eat!!)
Try Mishmash--- Peppers, onions, eggs and GOOD!!
Sausages. We LOVE sausages, but the spices in Bulgarian Sausage were not to our taste. Hot Dogs were wonderful, but a fresh sausage that looks a lot like a German Bratwurst does NOT taste like a German Bratwurst—Not bad at all—just not what we expected.
We ate in the room most lunches—packed from the Kauffmann. Fresh bread, ham or salami, cheese, fruit, chips and maybe a sweet torte. Go to the deli case and point. Write down “100 grams”--- a good size portion for 2 people. We only got stuff from the “cured” or “ready-to-eat” case.
You can find western chips—Lays, Doritos and such. We buy local and have a taste treat (Bacon flavor chips are really good).
Soda is everywhere. Pepsi and Coke, Coke Light, Coke Zero and European Fanta. Plus bottled water (we like Devin which is the biggest local brand).
It was included in all of our hotel stays.. A much bigger and nicer spread than is customary in Western Europe. Included are:
Eggs—hard boiled, scrambled and usually ”hemneggs”
“Hemneggs” Well it is—um-- Ham and Eggs. A thin layer of Ham topped with fried eggs—YUM!
Hot Meats- Ham (see above) usually a smoked sausage (like polish sausage)
Cold Meats- Ham and other cold cuts
Breads—western style toast, hard rolls and local sweet pastries
Cheese- Deli sliced cold cheeses—Swiss, Bulgarian White and usually a yellow cheese of some sort
Yogurt—fresh and a bit more pungent than in the US
Fruits (fresh, canned, and dried)
Cold Cereal (usually corn flakes and muesli)
Tea, Coffee, water, milk, and some dreadful orange-like drink that should be avoided at all costs
I GUESS you COULD snag enough for lunch too if your pockets are large enough??
Get to the airport at LEAST 2 hours early. It is quite funny. They have this awesome terminal, yet continue to do things in Eastern European style to get you home. Expect to wait in very long and slow lines then get your boarding pass and wait in more lines to get to the escalator and still more lines to get to security and immigration. As easy as it was to get in to Bulgaria—is is that hard to get out!
Airport food and drinks are CRAZY expensive (and not very tasty)--- try to avoid if you can.
Other cities we visited:
Burgas or Bourgas
A gem of a city by the Black Sea. Did we love it because of the location? The great hotel? Or that it held one of the nicest, best run orphanages we have ever seen. All of the above!
Okay. We were there in the summer at the peak of tourist season. We enjoyed dinner every night on the beach. A midday dip in the Black Sea was the rule and most every night we enjoyed a stroll through the peaceful yet balmy promenade.
We stayed at the Aqua Hotel. A decent 3 star place about a 20 minute walk from the sea-park, and a 20 minute walk from the huge and modern Burgas Mall. Breakfast was great. The room was comfy--- beware of mini bar scams--- ask them to take out all the stuff when you arrive so they do not try to rip you off
Each night we ate at a little place right on the Beach--- shame on me I do not recall the name. Prices were good (especially considering high season) and the food was great. Our hosts ate huge plates full of small whole fishes every night. I finally got up the nerve to try one the last night--- not bad at all! I do not think we ever paid more than $15 USD for a meal with several adult beverages included.
We spent our time here with Deyan and at the beach—not much else to report. There is a decent shopping area filled with kiosks—it is a short 5 minute walk from the hotel—but it closes quite early--- maybe 9pm.
Jordan’s home city and while the reason for coming here was tragic, despite it all, we had a nice time in this small Bulgarian town with a rich history.
Shumen was an early seat of Bulgarian power. We toured the fortress that dates back to the first Bulgarian Empire and was occupied through Roman times. Very cool. On the next bluff was the Monument to “ 1300 years of Bulgaria”. A neat cubist Soviet eara monument that really helped us to understand a basic cultural difference between us and Eastern Europe. Our favorite is a statue of (crud I do not remember his name) with his arms out showing 2 points. The description in English was that “from here to here al is legal and permitted—outside these bounds is illegal and punishable” . How odd for an American. For us—as long as it is not expressly forbidden it is okay—but in the EE unless a thing is expressly permitted it is illegal. A HUGE cultural shock!
Aside from the sights, Shumen is a wonderful livable little town. They have a nice pedestrian zone with Corn-on-the-cob street food and strolling families. Shumen is also home base for my favorite Bulgarian Beer--- Shumensko!
I think it is fair to say this has been our favorite city in Bulgaria. I don’t know why. Perhaps the mountain climate…Or the “friendlier than most” people. Dunno, but both Mary and I love it here.
Blago is home to the American University of Bulgaria and we must give thanks to Sabina and Markus for showing us around. There is a great old Soviet era town square and an even lovelier pedestrian zone. It is a vibrant college town, yet seems very traditional and comfortable at the same time.
Our Hotel Ezerets was awesome—great beds, fast internet and an awesome restaurant. The main site is the Rila Monastery just outside of town—sad to say that time did not allow us to visit—hopefully upon our return.
So there you have it--- a brief rundown of our experience from a couple of weeks Bulgaria. Needless to say your mileage may vary. Enjoy your stay. Explore where and when you can. You will have great stories to share with you adopted kids for years to come!