Sunday, October 11, 2015

Random and Direct: our trip to Sofia, Bulgaria

One year we went to Targu Mures in Transylvania, Romania. Why? Because it was random and direct; we had never really conceived of going there so it was a random choice and there were direct flights from Rome. In my world, those two criteria are pretty much good enough to visit any city on a weekend trip.

Alexander Nevski Cathedral
This October, we added one more criterion to the random and direct list: must have a half marathon. I started looking on Map My Run for a half marathon in a not-so-well-known-city to us that had direct flights from Rome. There were many results for half-marathons and many results for random cities, but a fewer number at the intersection of those three criteria.

Sofia, Bulgaria quickly came out as the winner when we factored in cost and flight duration. Only about 1 hour 45 minutes from Rome, flights to Sofia were quite reasonably priced. And not being in the Euro zone, everything else there too was a downright bargain. The hotel was about 30 Euro a night, the average meal for 2 about 15 euro and the half marathon entrance 10. And best of all 2 litre beer bottles at convenient stores sold for about 1.20 Euro (I never had one, but appreciated the concept). Considering that we were still within the European Union, these deals were of another decade.

Vibrant statue in front of the Theater House.
I don't know what it is called, but I would call it Exuberance
No, Bulgaria is still a well-kept secret. Perhaps it is still in the shadows of its famous next door neighbors: Italy and more recently, Croatia, so the tourists have yet to venture that extra step east. However, I reckon that it won't be long before Sofia, perhaps like Budapest, becomes more widely known in the touristic circles.

Charming, clean, modern with an artsy flare all laid out across the backdrop of its communist history, Sofia is like an introvert friend. Unassuming and quiet, you never heard much about her, but when you give her a chance, you learn all her good qualities, making you a little regretful that you didn't know each other before.

Statue of babealicious Saint Sofia guarding the city
You can get to know Sofia quite well just through some of her most spectacular sites: the Saint Alexander Nevski Cathedral (photographed above), a testament to the city's Orthodox faith, St. George's Rotunda Church amidst the ruins of the old town of Serdica, a reminder of the city's antiquity and roman past, and the hot mama Saint Sofia Statue that stands in the place of where Lenin statue used to be, proof of the city's new start after communism.

For English speakers and other readers of the Roman alphabet, Bulgarian menus are indecipherable. Restaurants don't generally have English menus posted; however, they all seemed to have one in reserve in case of requests. The food was phenomenal, mostly Mediterranean style a combo of Greek, Turkish, Serbian, Arab with some Northern European touches. Bulgar, couscous and feta combined with tomatoes, peppers, parsley are often coupled with kraut, pickled vegetables and radishes... practically the best pieces of every European/Middle Eastern cuisine.

Not the Shopska salad but just as great!
As a vegetarian, I often miss out on National foods which tend to be meat-based. Bulgaria in contrast has national salads! The city of Sofia even has a typical one called, Shopska: tomatoes, cucumbers and cheese. I was in heaven. In addition to the long list of salads and warm or cold vegetarian appetizers, there were also at least 3-7 soups on any menu, many of which were veggie (though you may have to be flexible on the broth used). Soups are hugely popular in Bulgaria so even the fast food joints had ample soup options.

I happily indulged in all of these non-pasta, non-pizza meal options while still managing to maintain my very Italian coffee and wine habits, visiting many of the little coffee shops and wine bars on Vitosha Boulevard and across the city.

One of the many cute outdoor cafes on Vitosha Boulevard
The Sofia half marathon, the guise under which we chose to go on this particular trip, also far exceeded our expectations. Smallish, yes, but with a good atmosphere and number of spectators. The runners were well spaced out so you never felt cramped; they had water and sustenance stands well tended by volunteers. We got a t-shirt, a technical shirt and a medal each: not bad at all for a 10 euro entrance fee. We also got to witness the elite runners from Ethiopia and Kenya who won the men's and women's race, respectively, finish the full marathon in about the same time as we finished the half. You want to be inspired: watch these athletes cross the finish line and talk to the cameramen, breathing normally after sprinting 42 km. Amazing.

Enjoying the perfect weather before the half marathon
I am no elite runner, but I ran my fastest half marathon yet and felt invigorated after the 1 hour and 49 minutes. As a reward. we had a Starbucks coffee and a hearty salad at another lovely outdoor cafe, soaking in the perfect 24 degree weather. We wandered the streets a bit more looking at the array of bakeries, cafes and little boutiques. And then boarded our Alitalia flight home, saying goodbye to Sofia and a beautiful mountainous landscape that we would have to visit on another trip.

A greater writer than I would have called this trip, the road less traveled. A modern guide book would have dubbed it off the beaten path. In my more blunt manner, I called it random and direct, but any which way you call it, being unconventional in your choices always pays off.

Check out more photos of Sofia on my Instagram feed!

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