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. The 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! In fact on the last trip, immigration was a NON issue---- un-staffed---walk right in
On our first trip, our bags got lost--- There are 2 companies that handle lost luggage. One works for Lufthansa/United. GREAT FOLKS! 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/United)!
Trip one: 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.
Trip 2: One of Toni's associates picked up up-- again very easy. This time we arrived on a weekday so we did have quite a bit more traffic and it took nearly 40 minutes to get to the "Pest"
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 a bit. From what we saw firsthand and what we have read--- the government has done a pretty good job cleaning up the cabbie racket! When you get in a cab, make sure it is metered.---I suggest you use the "OK" Cab Company for no drama. 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.--- We had 2 bad cab experiences on our second trip. Each time,it was a cab we got on the street and the driver tried to rip us off--- He did not start the meter and asked for a HUGE (10 times the legit fare) payday..My daughter and son were on the first trip.She refused to pay what he wanted and gave him 5 Leva (what the fare should have been)--- he yelled at her then pulled away. The second time I was in the cab--- I told the kids to get out--- I got out my cell phone and took a picture of him and the cab license and kept shouting "Politsiya"--- he tore off with the door still open--- with no leva at all--- so be careful and do not put up with any crap for the cabbies---- better yet--- call ahead and only use "OK" company.
Two trips and about 10 days total in Sofia and we have a little better feel for the city
It is still really hard to judge things 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. Talk to the desk at the Hotel for a 2 or 3 hour tour--- you will get a much better feel for the city than your daily comings and goings from the "Pest".
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:
You will find:
· 2 (at least) Starbucks (But do not ask for black ice tea “it is not possible”) (free Wifi)
· McDonalds every few blocks (free Wifi)
· KFC/Dunkin Donuts (the KFC by the Pest is not very friendly when you point and grunt for a bucket of mixed)
· Gyro (actually Doener) places on every corner---the best is a block and a half down from the pest on the hotel side of the street--- The owner is a Turk and a great host!--- eat like a king for 3 Leva!
· Subway (free wifi)
· Happy Grill (My choice as best “local” food without drama) Free Wifi and lots of grilled meats-- we ate here with and without the kids--- they have highchairs and go the extra mile to make you feel welcome!
--- Other food
There is a GREAT and inexpensive "traditional" Bulgarian place right down the street--- (hang a right out of the hotel---cross the boulevard and the place is on the left)--- Awesome cheap eats--- a little touristy and not very kid friendly (they offered pillows to help the kids sit higher) but the food was GREAT!
German food? There is a Bittburger/Erdinger Beer Hall/restaurant near the Theatre District. I really wanted to go, but we did not have the time--- It looked GREAT!
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.
We arranged for a 2 1/2 hour sightseeing tour with an English speaking cabbie (ask for Dmitri! with OK cab). Marty LOVES the car and my helper kids did not get to see much of the city- So it was a good way to kill an afternoon-- It was awesome! Lots of sights in and out of the city--- 35 euro and worth every penny! We made sure we saw the old Roman church, Mosque, Nevski Cathedral and the quaint Russian Church -- 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 kids went to the Opera--- up-close for super cheap--- recommend!
Also at Christmas, there is a nice German sponsored Christmas market near Nevski
We located several options for Catholic Mass--- The Cathedral of St Joseph has Sunday Masses in Bulgarian, Polish and Latin--- There is English Mass on Sunday at the Chapel at 5 Oborishte Street-- between the British consulate and Neviski (across the street from the library)
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!
Staying At The Budapest
The fist impression of the "Pest" is "why is this really nice hotel plopped in the land of used auto parts" The rumor amoung the locals is that it is the "prostituka" hotel--we never saw that
It is a very short walk to the train and bus station--- a bit longer into the city center. The hotel is TOP NOTCH! They treated us and the kids so well--- Breakfast is the best I have ever had in Europe (full American breakfast plus German stuff and everything you would need to make the kid's meals!) --- dinner is good, if pricey. If you have your child, make sure you get a corner room-- we had enough space for 3 adults and 2 kids.
Ask for the porta cribs.
Do NOT plan on using the mini bar fridge as your yogurt, pop, supplies chest--- it does not get very cold. We used the ledge outside the bathroom window as it was winter--- we only had one bottle of Fanta fall onto the pavement (or a car)---if it was not cold outside, I'm not sure what we would have done.
Do NOT use the laundry service---- you could spend a hundred USD getting your duds cleaned once!
Around the Budapest
Need a used starter for a 1983 Lada?--- you are in the right place! Car parts shops are EVERYWHERE! But there are some gems to be found too!
Grocery--- there are a few small places nearby. Cross the street for awesome fresh squeezed juice and semi fresh meat and cheese. Get pop, beer,chips and chocolate from any of the small shops--- for more variety head to the Billa at the train station-- It is less than a ten minute walk-- you need a coin to free the cart and off you go! They have prepared foods for cheap in-room dining or stuff for sandwiches. We got "Frutis" and "Puddis" for the kids---plus baby food,diapers,wipes and anything else you might need for your new arrivals.
Want better prices and more variety? Have the hotel call a cab to take you to Kauffland- a couple of Leva for the ride and much better value---just make sure you arrange for the return cab ride with the hotel as well!
Dining-- I covered a lot of this above in the Sofia dining section, but here are some hidden treats: Go to the Doenner shop about a block and a half to the right of the hotel. They feature fresh baked chicken, awesome soups and salads on the CHEAP! Next door is a pastry place with great looking Banista. You can find a cafeteria plus a pizza place en rout to the train station (go the back way---its all locals) OR go the the boulevard and hang a left for KFC,a tourist pizza place, Dunkin Donuts and the live "Peep" show.
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—Kauffland, Lidl and Metro (need a membership card or your US passport here) 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 Kauffland. 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*****!
****NEW PARENT TIP--- if you are on your pickup trip-- DO NOT WAIT IN ANY LINES--- it seems that parents with babies are exempt from lines--- if they do not pull you to the front of the line, just go there yourself--it is FUN!
Airport food and drinks are CRAZY expensive (and not very tasty)--- try to avoid if you can. The "Pest" will make you a boxed breakfast--make sure you ask the night before.
Connections for flying home (if you are Skyteam) :
We had a NIGHTMARE return trip because of a late departure from Sofia---that said, if you can--CONNECT IN ROME!!! We had a bit of drama because of our late flight and a problem with the gate assignment, but the connection in Rome... especially with little kids.. is as easy as it gets. You exit the plane-- follow the transfer signs...Up the escalator... catch the tram for one stop--- down the escalator--- through security (no need to wait in line). Turn left and there is your gate--- it can be done in less than 10 minutes TOTAL--- I have never had an easier international connect---ever.
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 era 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 few weeks in 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 your adopted kids for years to come!