The strange thing about the train from Bucharest to Sofia was that it grew. I’m sure I was in the front carriage when I got on. Following the route on the GPS, we zigzagged from town to town, through massive open fields with not a house in sight. This had to be industrial scale farming. Another huge solar panel farm went by. At the border a wandering dog worked a passenger on the platform to get a scratch and belly rub. We changed to a smoky engine to get us across a super long bridge across the Danube, and I think it was on the other side where more carriages got added on in front. The train was pretty empty so they weren’t really necessary. There was a lot more green in the fields south of the border. I don’t know if it was the effect of climatic differences or farming practices. It got dark and the lights in the carriage were pretty dim. When the third or fourth ticket inspector came round he managed to turn them on properly. Until then I was thinking second class meant bring a lantern.
The station in Sofia at half past ten at night was the worst introduction to a city. The sign boards for the train schedules were barely lit enough to read. There were no signs pointing which way to leave for the metro, and even though the escalators to the metro were directly outside the station, the walk in the open air subway was pretty dim and grim, and again unsigned until right outside the metro. I wondered where I had landed. The station wasn’t much better when I returned the next morning in the dim light of day.
The metro itself was bright and shiny and new. Building it uncovered all sorts of Roman ruins and artefacts, some of which have been incorporated into displays along the platform at the central station, named for the Roman name of the city, Serdika. Above ground, the footpaths are incredibly uneven and buildings more dilapidated than Bucharest, apart from the main shopping strip and government buildings. Dogs lay in the almost sun. Most of the sights are churches, a few sculptures that have a strong socialist flavour and parks. There’s a yellow brick road and a market nearby where a mixture of icons, old communist and even Nazi paraphernalia was being sold. It was a dry day and not too cold and people seemed to have decided it was spring already. The parks were full of people chatting, walking around, reading, playing cards.
The thing that got me the most was the number of beggars and needy people busking or trying to sell flowers, mostly snow drops. Several clearly disabled, two too tired or ashamed to show their faces, old men singing, playing harmonica, guitar, a brass instrument of some sort, and what I guessed was the Bulgarian version of the bagpipes. The first fellow playing this instrument was pretty terrible at it. Think bagpipes and make them sound terrible, or even more terrible depending on your opinion of bagpipes. The second one just up the hill was pretty good. The instrument looked like an inflated shorn torso of a sheep with bells attached. After thinking in Romania that the exchange rate is the problem, I don’t know any more. The exchange rate here is more equitable, but the town and many people seem to be in a worse place. Then again, does it matter that the pavements are so bad people walk on the road? Or that there’s graffiti everywhere and the buildings are grey? I think it could affect people’s mood and pride but perhaps money is being spent where it is needed more.
The trains in Bulgaria didn’t run at the most convenient times. The buses were better and left from near the train station. The complete lack of signs from the metro or the train station left a massive opportunity for a random old guy to make a living from. I didn’t have much cash on me so he didn’t get as much as he would have liked for walking me to the bus sales office and then the bus station. I don’t remember much of the ride to Plovdiv. The bus station I was supposed to arrive at in Plovdiv was the one that I left from the next day, but I’m sure the one I arrived at was different. I certainly couldn’t see the local bus stop for the hostel, so into a taxi it was. I’d read something about them being only able to charge up to 5 lev (about $3.70 Australian) so it really wasn’t too much of a concern.
The hostel deserves a mention for once. It’s in one of the old buildings in the old town and has kept the flavour or the place by using restored furniture. I didn’t have time to look at much if I was to make that day’s walking tour. I dumped my stuff and went. Plovdiv is in better condition than Sofia, and the divide looks likely to grow. The tour guide mentioned more than once that it’s going to be a European Capital of Culture in 2019 and lots of work is being done in preparation for that. More streets are being pedestrianized, one was being repaved that week after being closed to cars just days earlier. Lots of buildings in the Old Town looked like they’d recently had paint jobs, and more were in the process of having work done. If they don’t run out of money I think it’ll scrub up pretty well. And if Sofia was a dog town, this was a cat town. Which I don’t mind at all. There’s also lots of street art about the place, and statues of significant everyday folk. And the obligatory ruin or three.
Our guide told us that the city has been there for ages. They’re still digging through the layers of archaeological evidence and haven’t hit the bottom. Thracian, Greek, Roman, Bulgarian. I heard proof that the Greeks still call the city by its ancient Greek name Philippopolis when I was talking with a Greek fellow on the next bus. The town was founded on seven hills. There’s only six now because they sold one as stone for buildings and paving around Europe. The tour guide recounted then dismissed a theory that an ancient theatre was discovered when some bloke started digging in his basement, but if you know the place has history and everyone is pretty much sitting on it, why wouldn’t you have a bit of dig around?! If you didn’t mind losing said house, because now the houses are gone and the theatre has been uncovered and gets used for music concerts. I nodded at the clouds and fog where there was supposed to be a great view.
The pedestrian mall is the longest in Europe. Another Roman ruin, a stadium, runs under part of it. Different coloured pavers on the mall mark one end of it and the other end is revealed by a cutaway in the ground where you can go down and get a closer look. I like how the old has been incorporated into the modern life of the town. The rain settled in and the five of us from the tour went for lunch together. Two American friends who are teachers, a Russian teacher of Biology who’s not too comfortable with the way things are going in Russia, and maybe her partner. Afterwards I ducked into a bookshop and bought a physical non-textbook book for the first time in I don’t know how long. Luckily there was an English section. I figured I’d be needing something to read with a seven hour bus trip and the long flights home.
Back at the hostel I got chatting with one of my roommates. A Canadian fellow, Peter, walking most of the way from Switzerland to Jerusalem on pilgrimage. That’s impressive. We were joined by our Bulgarian roommate who didn’t believe the three of us were managing to communicate with sign language, a map and Peter’s Spanish. She eventually insisted on getting the receptionist to translate, only for her to find that we had indeed all understood. There was some discussion about different peoples or parts of the region which Peter translated to me as Balkan revisionism, which combined with Gloria’s tone said all I needed to know.
The next morning I went to the bus station to get my ticket for the afternoon. The American teachers had said they were sold out the day before. I got to see a slightly different part of townon the way. I don’t know whose front yard the van, plane and tank were parked in. Ticket in hand, I retraced a few of the steps from the tour to have a better look at things. I thought I might get to the museum but lunch and Turkish liras got in the way. Or rather, the lack of lira and a surprising surplus of lei.