Sofia, Bulgaria

“United Bulgarians can lift a mountain”

Bulgarian Proverb

 

sofia ruins

So as part of my plan to visit as many countries as I can this year, whilst working full-time, I’ve been popping across to Europe whenever I have a few days off, so in April, I visited Sofia in Bulgaria.

I didn’t really know what to expect and travelling so soon after a month along trip, I hadn’t really done much research. Luckily I was pleasantly surprised! Bulgaria is cheap, the people are friendly with most speaking English well and it’s beautiful!

sofia mountain over city

The first thing I noticed on arrival in Sofia was a snow covered mountain rising above the town at the end of Vitosha Boulevard, the main shopping street. These are the Vitosha Mountain massif and somewhere immediately high on my priority list to visit!

I’d booked an Urban Adventures ‘Food, Heritage and Culture’ tour for my first afternoon so headed straight off on this. It was a great introduction to the city, as I saw many of the beautiful historic buildings and churches, ancient ruins and tried some delicious food along the way. I also picked up tips on where to head over the rest of my time and restaurant recommendations. The traditional Bulgarian salad was a big favourite and I ordered this a few more times… The dishes mostly feature hearty meat and potatoes. I made sure I sampled a few Bulgarian wines too.

 

bulgarian salad

I enjoyed just strolling around, admiring the architecture, and popping into churches or museums as they took my fancy. I visited the women’s market and the main food market and crossed over a few bridges.

I stayed at a Guest House just off Vitosha Boulevard, with a kitchen so that I could make my own coffee and breakfast in the morning, and had the option of making lunch for the day too. The room was comfortable but basic – just what I needed.

With only 4 days in Bulgaria, I have to confess that I didn’t actually spend all that long in Sofia itself, as I escaped the city by heading to the mountains and booked a day trip to Plovdiv and Koprivshtiza (more anon…). I’d recommend a visit to all of these and think I’ll be back myself to visit Varna, or to easily pop to Serbia or Macedonia!

sofia fountain

 

Riga

“The Christmas tree is a symbol of love, not money. There’s a kind of glory to them when they’re all lit up that exceeds anything all the money in the world could buy.” 

Andy Rooney

 

riga view

 

So first up and my travel trip for January was Riga in Latvia. I try to make the most of my days off work, so this was a short trip with just two days in the capital. Unfortunately, I was feeling pretty run down so lacked my usual get up and go and the grey January skies didn’t help.

I stayed at the Wellton Riga Hotel and Spa, which was a short walk from the old town and the spa was great for chilling out in the evening, with Jacuzzis, a sauna and steam room. The buffet breakfast was extensive and you could even help yourself to bubbly!

I started my day with a walk past the Laima clock and Freedom Monument and through Bastion Hill on my way to the Occupation Museum. Like most of the museums in Riga, entrance is free with voluntary donations. I am fascinated by the recent past and this museum was very comprehensive. Next was the Orthodox cathedral with beautiful gold décor on the dome and inside. I was intrigued by the art nouveau district so wandered around keeping my eyes up! The art nouveau museum is small but there are lots of interactive displays.

beer tasting

I made sure I was at the Skyline bar before sunset for beautiful views (from the panaromic lift, glass walled bathrooms and of course the bar). Situated on the 26th floor of the Radisson Blu Latvija Conference Hotel, it is definitely worth heading there for a glass of wine at dusk in order to get the views in daylight and then all lit up at night. To end my night, I went beer tasting at the Aussie Pub backpackers, where you can get 14 beers for the bargainous price of 10Euro! Well worth it.

The next day was more focused on the old town, with visits to The House of Blackheads (merchants house), St Peter’s church with great but chilly views from the top of the spire, Riga’s dome cathedral (look out for organ concerts!) and the Jewish Museum which is a little further than the massive central market, taking up 5 large buildings.

Things to seek out are:

  • The Three Brothers – adjacent buildings that legend has it were built by three brothers, despite being from different centuries, and are the oldest dwellings in Riga with the most ancient being from the 15th century
  • The statue of the Bremen town musicians – which features animals from the Grimm Brothers fairy tale, standing on top of each other, which is located outside St Peter’s church
  • The black cats – two of which are on the roof of a building opposite the guild. The story goes that when a wealthy man was refused admission to the Guild, he had two cats erected on the roof with their backs to the Guild as a snub (they have now been turned around after he was taken to the courts!)
  • Swedish Gate – a part of the original city walls. Apparently the executioner would display a red rose the night before an execution was scheduled
  • Art nouveau décor – can be spotted in various places all around the city and is one of Riga’s claims to fame. The details and facial expressions really entertained me

 

An unexpected highlight, considering I travelled after twelfth night, was the Christmas trees everywhere. Did you know that the Christmas tree as we know it originated in Latvia, where trees where first decorated in the early 1400’s? They helped keep my festive spirit going a little longer!

riga christmas tree

 

Next travel trip:  Senegal