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Today it was time for us to leave Sofia behind and set off towards our final Bulgarian destination: Veliko Tarnovo. We were planning to travel by train, but after our experience of being stuck in a very hot and stuffy Bulgarian train carriage for the comparatively short journey between Plovdiv and Sofia on Tuesday, we were slightly apprehensive about the journey from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo, which is about twice as long. When I was reading up on Bulgarian trains in the guidebook the other day, I'd realised that we could actually have done the Plovdiv-Sofia journey in first class for only a couple of extra lev than we paid for second, so we decided to investigate how much it would cost to buy first class tickets for today's journey. The difference between first and second class on Bulgarian trains seems to be limited to the fact that second class carriages have eight seats per compartment, whereas first class carriages only have six, but we figured the extra space might be nice. We had toyed with the idea of trying to catch the metro to the train station in Sofia this morning but the metro map seemed a bit confusing when I looked at it last night, so in the end we decided to walk. It was a nice stroll in the morning sunshine, and we arrived at the station at around 09.30 with plenty of time to buy our tickets and get to the platform before our train departed at 10am. I knew from the guidebook that Sofia station is quite regimented in terms of which sort of tickets can be bought from which desk, and that for same-day travel in Bulgaria tickets we needed to make our way to desks 1 - 13 on the lower floor. We obviously didn't look decisive enough when we walked into the station though, because no sooner had we arrived and started looking around, then we were pounced on by a man who claimed to be in charge of information. He did have a badge saying "information" around his neck, but I wasn't 100% sure whether he was a genuine employee or not, because I was sure I'd read somewhere about people trying to accost tourists in train stations and help them buy tickets, then demand money. He was quite persistent though and when we said we wanted to go to Veliko Tarnovo, he marched us downstairs to the correct ticket counter, inserted us in what to me looked like the middle of a queue rather than the end, and proceeded to help us buy the tickets. He may have thought he was scamming us when, when the ticket lady asked whether we wanted a seat, he said to her in Bulgarian "Give them first class", but given that this is what we'd already decided to ask for it worked out quite well Unbelievably, the cost of first class tickets worked out as 19 lev (£8.71) each. It costs me more than that to get to work every day! Tim gave the man some small change to say thank you/make him go away and he didn't want to accept it at first, so maybe he was a genuine customer service employee! We soon found our way to the platform and settled in to the train compartment, which was indeed a lot roomier than than the one we'd travelled in the other day There are no direct trains between Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo. Instead, trains on the Sofia line stop at a nearby station called Gorna Oryahovitsa, about 10km from Veliko Tarnovo, which seems to be a major railway junction. The journey to Gorna Oryahovitsa takes around 4 hours, and we were due to arrive there at 13.53. It turned out to be a very scenic journey as we left Sofia behind and travelled through some really pretty countryside. The hills progressed from being forested to quite rocky in places, as the train travelled along the route of the river Iskar, a tributary of the Danube. Every so often we passed through little settlements, but there weren't many large towns. We arrived in Gorna Oryahovitsa promptly at 13.53 and our second train to Veliko Tarnovo was due to depart at 14.15. It was delayed for 15 minutes or so for unspecified reasons, a bit bizarrely as it was already at the station when we arrived, but at least that meant we were able to sit on it while we waited for departure. The journey on the second train was brief - only 20 minutes or so - but I had to track where we were on my maps app because there don't seem to be any announcements at all on Bulgarian trains and the signs with station names are quite low key. Once we got to Veliko Tarnovo, we weren't entirely sure how we were going to get to our apartment. On paper it looked like it was only 2km away, but every time I looked at a map of Veliko Tarnovo I just got confused. The station is a bit outside the main town, in what seems to be an industrial zone, and it wasn't clear from the map what the best way to walk to the town centre would be. We thought we might have found a route but, when we came out of the station, we found that there were no signs and also no pavements, so we decided to admit defeat and jump in a taxi. Tim asked the taxi driver how much it was going to cost, trying to make sure that we didn't get scammed. The taxi driver seemed slightly affronted by the question and told us that he had a meter. In the end it cost a mere 3.50 lev, despite the fact that we drove around in circles for a bit trying to find the exact street that our apartment was on, and Tim gave him 5 lev (£2.30 - I'm pretty sure more than that is already on the clock before you even step into a taxi in Nuneaton!). The building which our apartment was in didn't look terribly appealing from the outside but, once we got inside, it turned out to be lovely There's a large bedroom... ...and a nice living/dining area with a kitchen. Not bad for £27.50 per night! The only slightly strange thing is that when you switch on the light in the bathroom, it starts playing what I assume is supposed to be relaxing music out of a speaker in the ceiling Once we'd settled in to the apartment, we set out to see a little bit of the town and try to find some dinner. Not far from our apartment there's a park... ...with a huge complex of fountains. Fountains seem to be big in Bulgaria! We didn't have to go much further before we found a large statue in a square. This is the Monument to Mother Bulgaria, which commemorates losses in the Russo-Turkish and First World Wars. We spotted that there was a restaurant opposite the square with a nice terrace, so we decided to go there for some dinner. We were rather hungry, having missed lunch while on the train, so had pudding as well as a main course. Despite the fact that we had wine and coffee too, we still didn't manage to spend more than £23. By the time we'd finished eating we were stuffed, so we decided to save exploring the rest of Veliko Tarnovo until tomorrow
Today we had a full day to explore Sofia We had a leisurely start to the morning in our apartment and then, before heading into the main city centre, decided to explore one of Sofia's large parks, which I'd seen marked on a map of the city. Our apartment wasn't too far from Borisova gradina, Sofia's oldest park which was created in 1884. We found the park without too much difficulty and started strolling around. First impressions were that it was virtually deserted and felt more like a forest than a park. We walked for quite a long time on wooded paths which felt more like they were in the middle of the countryside than in the middle of a capital city! Eventually we reached the far end of the park and, when we started walking back along the other side, we found ourselves in a part which seemed a bit more like a conventional park. The large obelisk in the distance is a Communist monument, known as the Mound of Brotherhood. A bit further on we found this pond, whose surface was almost completely covered in water lilies. At the edge of the park there is a lake and a good view towards the mountains outside the town. We crossed over Sofia's river via Eagle's Bridge. Given how small the river is, they have put some effort into the bridges On the other side of the bridge, we found the Monument to the Soviet Army. This was erected in 1954 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the liberation of Sofia by the Soviets, but today it is a controversial monument and is periodically vandalised. The main sight we wanted to find today was the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which is one of the biggest Orthodox cathedrals in the world. Construction on the cathedral started in 1882 and it was completed in 1912. It was named after St Alexander Nevsky, a Russian prince, to honour the Russian soldiers who died liberating Bulgaria in the Russo-Turkish war. It's definitely an enormous church. We walked all the way around it, enjoying the views. Just behind the cathedral is Sofia's art gallery, which is also an attractive building. On the other side of the road, this ornate building is the home of the patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox church. Meanwhile, this very unassuming church is the church of St Sophia, originally built in the 4th century, and the church which gave the city its name. There was one more church which I really wanted to see. This is Sofia's Russian Orthodox church, built as the official church of the Russian embassy in Sofia. It had a really beautiful facade. Once we'd seen the Russian church, we were almost back in the part of Sofia which we'd visited yesterday. In the main square, near to where we'd found the underpass with the archaeological remains, we caught sight of this rather unusual statue. It turns out that it's a statue of St Sofia, which was erected here in 2000, replacing a statue of Lenin which had previously stood in the same spot. Although we'd already been in this part of town yesterday, we decided to stroll around and look at some of the sights again. We realised that from this point we could see the mosque and the synagogue at the same time. We also found this little medieval church, which we'd missed yesterday. It's named after St Petka, the patron saint of saddlers, and was discovered during excavations after the Second World War. We were hungry by this point so set off down the main shopping street in search of somewhere to get lunch. We found a nice restaurant where I had pizza and Tim tried some Bulgarian sausages. Again, very good value at about £18 for the meal. It was a really hot day again in Bulgaria, so we went back to the apartment for a while to enjoy the air-conditioning, heading out again once it was a bit cooler. There was a second park marked on the map of Sofia, so we decided to explore that. The map had a "National Palace of Culture" marked on the map in the middle of the park, which sounded like it might be something impressive. It turned out to be this big concrete building The fountains were pretty though! We've had a great time in Sofia Tomorrow we're on the move again, heading towards our next destination of Veliko Tarnovo.
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