Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Istanbul to Bristol 7 - Sofia


Sofia, 28th November 2012.

After a long sleep I head out and start exploring Sofia. I don't have very long in Sofia as tonight I'm taking the night train on to Belgrade.

I start the day by wandering south to the National Palace of Culture and then head north and east to the park surrounding the Monument to the Soviet Army, one of a number of monuments built under soviet rule to express Bulgaria's gratitude for their liberation. The park is filled with many little childish statues which have been sprayed in bright and slightly creepy colours. The monument itself is a large column on a raised square, atop stands a copper Russian soldier, flanked by a Bulgarian family, proudly waving his gun in the air and staring to the North.

At the base of the monument are further copper reliefs of people in dynamic positions rushing to the front or frantically assembling machines. Many figures have their faces sprayed red or green like tribal warpaint, emphasising that while we might dress wars and ensuing memorials in terms of national pride and the fight for freedom, they are often nothing more than industrialised tribal warfare in which the only thing more sophisticated than the weaponry is the rhetoric.

I walk on to the famous Alexander Nevsky cathedral, its many layered domes bubble out of each other, the highest two flashing brightly in gold. The cathedral was also built in thanks to russian liberation, but this time from Ottoman rule in 1878, it is another reminder of how the balkans have been a battle ground for thousands of years; sandwiched between, at different times, the competing empires of Greece, Rome, Ottoman Turkey, Imperial Russia, Austria-Hungary and most recently Soviet Russia; with various other great powers occasionally sticking their nose in.

The inside of the cathedral is dark, the ceiling quickly vanishes into a gloom that hangs just above your head. Ornate pictures of saints are illuminated by candles and spotlights, gold twinkles back from the dim marbled spaces between pillars. The stone floor echos with the steps of tourists and the click of their cameras. I find it a strange counterpoint to the light and airy mosques of Istanbul; the buildings have a similar domed Byzantine architectural style, but here the cathedral feels dark and closed in comparison.

I eat lunch at a pizza restaurant, which to my disappointment and relief provides a menu in English. Again I feel pathetic for not being able to fend for myself in the local language, my 'thanks' and 'please' stumbling from a phrase book. I'm probably being hard on myself. I'm in Bulgaria for only two days and it's not realistic to learn much of any of the languages I'll be passing through on this trip. It also feels stupid to be worrying about my Bulgarian in an Italian restaurant, to be authentic surely I should be attempting to speak Italian?

After lunch I walk to the mineral baths, the long front of the careworn building stands facing a small park. As I  approach the front door I see a small paper note stuck behind the glass that reads "Closed". I start to walk away when from behind me someone says in broken english: "Closed!".

I turn to see a security guard with a rumpled face and a soft flattened nose walking over to me with a slight limp. He's wearing a blue bomber jacket and, inexplicably, holding a ribbon in his right hand to which are attached some red and white balloons that bob happily next to him.
"It is closed." he repeats.
"Yes, the sign said."
"Where you from?"
"I'm from England" I reply, to a slightly confused face, "The UK, Great Britain?" I add hopefully.
The guard looks up for a moment thinking, then asks "London?".
"No, Bristol, in the west".
"Bris-tol", he moves the word around his mouth a few times, as if trying to remember a taste, then continues "I know Bristol, by the water."
"Yes, there's a harbour."
Suddenly invigorated he stands up straighter, the balloons drift away slightly with the motion, and says: "The water, is mineral and good", he points with his left hand at one of the small fountains outside the baths, "Better than Evian. Drink!".
He then nods emphatically, repeats "Drink!" and points again. With this he feels his work done and walks away, the jolly collection of balloons trailing a little behind him as he goes.

I follow his advice and before walking on try a little of the warm water that flows out of the drinking fountains next to the baths. The water is warm but sadly my sense of taste isn't good enough to decide if it tastes better than Evian, or even Bristol Water's finest spring.

My next stop is the Sveta Nedelya church which looks slightly more humble with its brickwork and single dome than the Alexander Nevsky cathedral. The current building was finished in 1933 after the previous one was destroyed by a 1925 Bulgarian communist party attack that killed a hundred and fifty people attending a funeral. The inside of the church, much like the cathedral, is gloomy, gold and ornate with a darkness hanging in the roof.

After seeing two major Orthodox Christian buildings I wonder if this style is unique to Orthodox Churches or something particular about Bulgaria. Inspecting my guidebook I find that I'm not very far from Sofia's Synagogue, which is just west of the indoor market. The gate to the synagogue is locked, but from behind I hear noises and upon pressing the buzzer I'm let in to find a few people working on part of the outer courtyard floor immediately behind the gate.

The synagogue is built in a Moorish Revival style with a black onion dome sitting upon a red and white striped brick facade. I'm lucky to be the only visitor and as I walk into the synagogue it is still, no click of cameras or chatter of crowds, just the quiet echo of my footsteps and the distant sound of the city. I'm relieved to find the inside open and airy with pews neatly arranged in the centre and no sense of the darkness that seems to occupy the Orthodox Churches. Under the high dome hangs a huge ornate gold chandelier, which is apparently the heaviest in Bulgaria.

I return to my hostel to collect my rucksack. While sitting in the kitchen checking my e-mails and itinerary I start talking to another guest, Jack, who is travelling through Europe from New Zealand. As I sit down he opens a coke and pours it into a glass containing a good measure of whisky. He's just arrived in Bulgaria and is planning to spend the winter as a ski instructor, taking a break from the Schengen area where he only has thirty days remaining on his visa. He pours himself another drink while complaining about the strictness of the Schengen visas and the high price of drink in western Europe. After another ten minutes, and two drinks for Jack, I take my leave, say goodbye to Aleksander and then taking the very new looking underground metro to the railway station.

After initially confusing the track labeled '5' with the platform labeled 'V' I find the Belgrade train; three Serbian sleeper carriages sitting behind a diesel engine. Again the train is relatively quiet so everyone in my carriage gets their own two-bunk compartment, this time each contains a sink (but no running water). I leave the door open to the corridor as I try to let the hot and stuffy compartment cool down; the radiator is on full and the window doesn't open. Other passengers obviously feel the same and shortly after we pull out of the station we're all standing outside of our compartments next to the open corridor windows.

From the stack of tickets the conductor is holding I can see that my first neighbour is also using an InterRail ticket, but he remains anonymous hiding in his compartment and I assume treating it as a sauna. Most passengers are more social; my other neighbour is a small old Bulgarian lady who is smoking a new cigarette every time I see her. Also in the carriage is a young looking Mexican called Herman who is hitchhiking through Europe, but now that the colder weather has started he has decided that he doesn't want to risk the uncertainty of hitching and is travelling to Budapest by train. The last person in our carriage is a tall angular man with a goatee and long slick black hair, which he regularly sweeps back behind his ears. He leans against the window opposite his compartment smoking and returns a nod of greeting.

After an hour we stop at the border checkpoint in Bulgaria and two customs agents and a border guard come through the train. As the guard checks our passports the agents look through our cabins; they lift the mattress off my bed, look under the sink and glance into my bags.

A long goods trains rumbles by on a parallel track as we sit and wait, all the passengers watch it enviously as it rolls on into Serbia. Herman describes some of the places he's been; his favourite place is Dublin because of the friendliness of the people and the nightlife, France also rates highly because of the food. He leans and smokes out of the window, making slightly nervous hand gestures when he talks. He doesn't like the cold weather that's now approaching and looks thin and cold just talking about it. His least favourite spot in Europe is a service station toilet in Croatia where he had to spend a night after failing to find a ride or accommodation. I ask about Mexico and say that Cancun, his hometown, must be nice. "It's ok, I suppose" he replies with a big smile which vanishes into a shrug of the shoulders which seems to say: "It's basically paradise on Earth, but you know, it gets a bit boring after a while".

We turn to look on as another customs agent joins his colleagues in the carriage, they all walk to the goatee man's compartment and start chatting, the new agent takes some photos of the compartment and then leaves. The agents and the goatee man, all smoking out of the window, talk in Bulgarian, the conversation running back forth. Herman and I can't understand what they're saying, the old lady probably does, but she just watches out of the corner of her eye and lights another cigarette. The agents seem to have found something they don't agree with and the goatee man protests in an annoyed voice, an agent makes calming motions and patiently explains something in return.

After another hour the new agent returns and following further discussion, which is never loud or aggressive sounding, the goatee man picks up his coat and small rucksack, then leaves the train with the customs agents. Ten minutes later our train starts to move again.

Soon we stop again, this time at a long low platform next to a station and some small official buildings flying Serbian flags. Our passports are checked and stamped by Serbian boarder guards. A few Serbian police officers then enter our carriage and start passing yellow ice-cream tub like containers from goatee man's compartment out of the window to colleagues who stack them on the platform. Herman and I share a raised eyebrow, from his face I can tell, like me, he's trying to guess what's in all the containers. After about twenty such containers have been removed we take on a few more passengers and the train starts to roll onwards to Belgrade.

I eat a few more lumps of what has become one giant all-in-oneTurkish sweet, crispy bits of pastry and nuts studding a soft core of turkish delight, before settling down in my warm cabin and trying to sleep.