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  1. We had a great time in Plovdiv yesterday, but we're not staying anywhere long on this holiday and today it was time to move on to our next destination: Sofia. We were travelling to the Bulgarian capital by train, so our first task was to find Plovdiv's main railway station. Tim succeeded in navigating us down a scenic route, so we were able to see Plovdiv's colourful main street one more time. The guidebook had warned that the queues to buy train tickets in Bulgaria could be enormous, so we'd arrived at the train station with plenty of time to spare. It turns out that I needn't have worried; the queues were quite small this morning and we got served within a few minutes. The train fare from Plovdiv to Sofia - a journey of around 100 miles - cost 9 lev each (£4.17). We were charged an extra half a lev each (23p!) to make a seat reservation. I wasn't sure how much to budget for travel in Bulgaria originally, because the part of the Bulgarian trains website which is supposed to show prices seems to be permanently down, but I don't think I need to worry about not having enough cash The train itself arrived promptly and the seats were reasonably comfortable, but the train was incredibly hot. There were windows which could be opened, and periodically someone would open one in the corridor, letting a nice bit of breeze into our compartment for a while, but then someone else with a fear of draughts would come along and close it and it would be very hot and stuffy again! The journey itself was scenic, taking us through some mountainous countryside towards Sofia. It took us just over 2.5 hours to get to the capital. Once we arrived, we had a walk of a couple of miles to our apartment. The area around the train station wasn't terribly scenic, but as we got closer to the centre of town, things improved. We crossed a bridge known as the Lions' Bridge, which was quite imposing. It crosses the river Vladayska, which was a bit underwhelming From here the city started to look a lot more appealing. Some of the pavements were very uneven though, which made pulling our suitcases hard work. There were also some busy main roads, which had to be crossed by going down steps into an underpass; not the most fun in the world when you've got heavy cases. We went down into what I thought looked like a particularly grotty underpass... ...and were surprised to find that it seemed to be home to some sort of archaeological remains From there it wasn't far to our apartment. The owner had sent me a message on Whatsapp to say that it was next to a bank and to text him when we were outside. I was glad for the directions because I think we would have struggled to find the correct building otherwise! Checking it was a rather surreal experience. The guy who owned the apartment communicated with us by speaking Bulgarian into Google Translate and showing us the English version! It worked remarkably well The apartment seems really good, with a comfy living area... ...a large kitchen... ...and a nice bedroom too At 88 lev per night (£41) it's more expensive than our apartment in Plovdiv, but Sofia is the capital and we are in quite a central location here. Once we'd settled in and enjoyed the air-conditioning for a bit, we set out to get some food and to explore a bit more of Sofia. Not far from our apartment is the Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church. This is a Bulgarian Orthodox church, inside what was formerly an Ottoman mosque. We'd seen some really impressive buildings while we were walking with our cases earlier, so we wanted to try and retrace our steps to take some photos. This building seemed to be something to do with the Bulgarian president. There were uniformed guards on duty outside. We went back into the underpass to have a closer look at the remains. It turns out these are the remains of the ancient city of Serdica and were only discovered within the past few years when construction work was taking place on the Sofia metro. We saw a few bits of mosaics... not quite as impressive as the ones we'd seen in Sicily in July, but definitely the most interesting underpass I've ever been in Once we'd come up the opposite side of the underpass we caught sight of a mosque in the distance. This is the Banya Bashi Mosque, which was built in 1566. It's still a functioning mosque today and as we walked around it, we heard the call to prayer. Behind the mosque we found this beautiful yellow building. It was historically home to Sofia's public mineral baths, but is now a museum. A little further on, we found Sofia's synagogue, which is one of the largest synagogues in Europe. By this stage we were back near the Lion Bridge As we made our way back towards the apartment, we caught a glimpse of what looked like a pretty church. It really was just a glimpse, because it was surrounded by trees When we crossed the road and got around to the other side of it, we had a better view This is the church of St Nedelya. We'd almost managed to come round in a circle back to our apartment by this point. First impressions of Sofia are that it seems like a small but pleasant capital, and we're looking forward to exploring some more of it tomorrow
  2. We had a leisurely start to the day in Plovdiv this morning, before setting out to explore the town. Plovdiv is Bulgaria's second city and is European Capital of Culture for 2019. The city is situated on the Maritsa river and the apartment we are staying in is just to the north of the river, whereas the main town centre is on the south, so our first task was to locate a bridge. The guidebook says that Plovdiv is built on six hills and it felt like we had to walk up several of them to get to the old town once we'd crossed the river. It was worth it, though; the old town is home to some really unusual buildings, built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in a style known as "national revival" architecture. Bulgaria was still ruled by the Ottomans at this time, but there was a growing national consciousness and a middle class who could afford to build some impressive houses. This bright blue one, known as the Hindliyan House, was built in 1835 by a merchant who had made his money trading in India. Lots of the houses were really colourful, with beautiful decorations on the front. Some of them are now museums, but many others are still lived in by people today. As we were walking around, I was a bit confused that several buildings seemed to be displaying what, on first glance, looked like an Argentinian flag. It turns out this is actually the flag of Plovdiv As we got towards the centre of the old town, we caught sight of one of Plovdiv's main churches, the church of St Constantine and Elena, with its pretty bell tower. Around the corner from here was the Hisar Kapia, a medieval gate into the old town, built in the 11th century. From here we followed a cobbled street uphill. It was so narrow that the houses almost touched in the middle. This took us to a place called Nebet Tepe, which is one of the hills where ancient Plovdiv was founded. We could see out across the modern part of town where we are staying... ...but the views out towards the old town and the mountains beyond were more scenic We could just make out the minaret of one of Plovdiv's Ottoman mosques. Plovdiv isn't just famous for it's more modern architecture; there are also Roman remains here. The city is home to one of the world's best preserved Roman theatres and that's where we were heading next. It cost 5 lev (£2.33) each to buy a ticket to enter the theatre, which seemed like good value. When we walked through the entrance, this was the view that greeted us. The theatre is enormous and can apparently seat over 5,000 people. It was built in the 1st century AD and lay buried for hundreds of years before finally being rediscovered following a landslide in the 1970s. Today it is used for concerts and plays, so there was a bit of sound and lighting equipment lying around. Tim climbed all the way down to the bottom but I stayed at the top, enjoying the views It really was an incredible location and definitely worth seeing. After the theatre, we made our way back down through the old town, towards the more modern city centre. On the way we passed the Church of the Assumption, which in the mid-nineteenth century was at the centre of the struggle for an independent Bulgarian Orthodox church, when the bishop of Plovdiv began to hold church services in Bulgarian. The inscription on the tower reads "In memory of the liberators" in gratitude to the Russian soldiers who liberated Plovdiv from the Ottomans in 1878. Following the treaty of San Stefano later in 1878, Plovdiv became the capital of a newly independent Bulgaria. But the treaty didn't last long and after the Congress of Berlin, the region of Eastern Rumelia was separated from the rest of Bulgaria. Plovdiv became the capital of Eastern Rumelia instead until the region was reunified with Bulgaria in 1885. By that time, however, Sofia was firmly established as the Bulgarian capital and Plovdiv has been the second city ever since. Once we were down in the town centre, we found the mosque which we had seen while up on the hill. This is the Dzhumaya Mosque, which was built in the 14th century and is believed to be one of the oldest European mosques. It's located just in front of the remains of Plovdiv's Roman stadium, built in the second century AD. It was free to climb down into the stadium and have a look around From here we walked along Plovdiv's main shopping street. Even though this was the more modern part of town, there were still some really pretty buildings, decorated in pastel colours. We found a nice restaurant to get some food; pizza for me and chicken with broccoli(!) for Tim. We finished up with tiramisu for me and cheesecake for Tim. Again it was really cheap - less than £20. After lunch we had another stroll around. We found the Roman Odeon, where it looked like renovation and excavation work was still ongoing. We also walked to Plovdiv's main park, the park of Tsar Simeon. Hopefully this is the closest we'll get to a bear during our trip The park is home to something called "The Lake of the Singing Fountains". It looked like a swimming pool with fountains in it But apparently there is a light display with classical music at weekends. By this stage we were pretty hot, so we decided to start making our way back through the town towards our apartment to cool off and blog. Plovdiv is a really beautiful city and we've had a lovely day here
  3. When we woke up this morning it was a bright sunny day in Burgas. We headed downstairs to investigate what our hotel's breakfast buffet had to offer. It seemed like quite a small breakfast buffet after the extensive one we'd enjoyed at BA's expense in Madrid on Tuesday morning, but we did get a pancake each which was good We didn't need to check out of the hotel until midday, so we decided to go for a stroll into the centre of Burgas. It seemed like a good idea in theory but in practice, because our hotel was so far away from the main centre, we pretty much needed to turn around and come back as soon as we got there It was nice to have a walk by the sea in the sunshine, though. The beach was a lot busier this morning than it had been yesterday evening! As we walked through the seaside park, we found the little church which we'd passed in the dark last night. The park itself was really pretty. It stretches for several miles along the coast and so we could walk almost the entire way from our hotel to the town centre without having to go out onto the road. The Black Sea looked a beautiful shade of blue this morning We made it back to the hotel on time to pack up our things and check out, before setting off back towards the town centre again. We just had time to get lunch in town before catching a bus to Plovdiv at 3pm. My original plan had been to take the train to Plovdiv, which would have involved departing at around 9am and being in Plovdiv for early afternoon. Unfortunately, after investigating the Bulgarian trains website in more detail, it turned out that although you can buy tickets for some trains in advance, the daytime train we wanted to take between Burgas and Plovdiv wasn't one of them. I thought about just turning up on the day and trying to buy a ticket, but it wasn't 100% clear whether a reservation was needed for the train or not, and various things I read online suggested that this was going to be a really busy weekend to travel, with some trains completely booked up, due to it being the last weekend of August and lots of Bulgarians needing to head back home from the coast. In the end I decided not to risk it and to book us two online tickets for the bus instead. I think it was a good decision, because when I eventually did buy the bus tickets, I got two of the last four seats on this particular bus. We ended up eating at the same restaurant as last night, because there was plenty of space to sit outside with our suitcases, so our first two meals in Bulgaria have been Greek Tim had fish with Greek potatoes, while I had chicken souvlaki with pitta bread. The entire meal only cost around £18, including Tim having a pudding of walnut cake and me having a much-needed espresso Then it was time to find the bus station, which wasn't too far away, just around the corner from Burgas train station. I was a bit apprehensive about whether we were going to get our assigned seats or not and, when we got on the bus, we did indeed find other people sitting in them. The good news is that they moved when Tim insisted that they do so and in general, there seemed to be a lower tolerance towards people sitting in the wrong seats compared to other south-east European countries that we've travelled in. Two other people who found someone else sitting in their seats caused a minor commotion, which ended with the bus driving back to the bus station and the conductor making the people move to the seats they were supposed to be sitting in. Our bus left Burgas at 15.00 and was due to arrive in Plovdiv at 19.30. We had an air-conditioning vent above our heads and for the first few minutes of the journey we enjoyed some beautiful cool air... before the lady sitting behind us asked us to re-position it because it was blowing on her. The rest of the journey was rather warm, although some other people on the bus were wearing coats I'm guessing Bulgarians must suffer from the general Eastern European fear of draughts! Our journey took us through miles and miles of sparsely populated Bulgarian countryside. Parts of the interior of Bulgaria are quite mountainous and for a lot of the journey we could see mountains in the distance. We arrived in Plovdiv more or less on schedule and set off to find our apartment, which was less than a mile from the bus station. I'd had a message from the owner telling us to call his mother when we arrived and that she would let us in. Tim navigated us to the correct road without too many difficulties, but once we got there we struggled to find the correct building. We were just starting to feel confused, when a lady came up to us and asked if I was Clare; the owner's mother had come out to look for us, which turned out to be really helpful because I'm not sure we would have found the building otherwise Once we got inside, we found we had a lovely apartment which seems like amazing value for the £29/night that we're paying! There's a nice bedroom... ...a large living area with a kitchenette... ...and a little balcony outside. We even got a little present each - the lady makes things out of felt as a hobby and gave us two little decorations which she said we could hang on our Christmas tree It's dark now, so exploring Plovdiv properly will have to wait until tomorrow, but first impressions are positive
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