Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sofia, Bulgaria

Thanks to Easyjet's bargain basement prices, I found myself in Bulgaria's capital, Sofia.

When coming in to land at Sofia International Airport I was thinking, what do I know about Bulgaria...? All I could conjure up was Cyrillic script, bagpipes, wine and spies. It was a good excuse to find out more.

5 minutes out of the airport and I wondered if I was in the shantytowns of Johannesburg... or the slums of Bangkok. It seemed to be populated mainly by Sofia's Roma community living in row after row of sheet-metalled squalor, with a few chickens here and there.

10 minutes later I arrived in the city centre. Surrounded by snow capped mountains which serve as a thriving ski resort during the winter, and packed with ancient and communist style buildings, it was quite a contrast to my first impression. Sofia is one of the oldest cities in Europe, over 7000 years old, dating back to Thracian times.

Bulgaria has endured numerous seizures by the Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Huns, Slavonic tribes, Ottomans and Russians, and later the Allies during WWII, during which time Bulgaria sided with the Germans. Finally, the Russians came in, and Bulgaria was subjected to decades of communist rule.

It didn't take too much querying to reveal the disdain many Bulgarians still feel towards their communist history, and a mix of disgust and humour about the way revolutionary socialism has been popularised in the west, especially by those who have little or no experience or knowledge about the ideology and practice.

I had 2 days before my night train to Turkey so I asked the owner of my hostel about tours. It turns out he has a nephew who has worked as a guide so I was lucky enough to get a 3 hour private guided walking tour for about €10. He was very well educated in Bulgaria's ancient and more recent history and politics so I got a unique insight into the country.

Despite its current ethnic tensions,( )
Bulgaria has had a history of ethnic and religious tolerance. During World War II Bulgaria took a strong stand against Germany in relation to the holocaust, and managed to save every one of the over 50,000 Jews living in the country at that time.

It's of little surprise, then, that some of Sofia's most impressive buildings are religious in nature. I had a glimpse inside a mosque, the Sofia Synagogue and the Russian church. As far as tourist sights in Sofia go, one of the city's most well known and beautiful is the Eastern Orthodox St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, one of the largest of its kind in the world. With its gold plated dome and marble interior, it's a beautiful sight.

When I was all churched-out I wandered around the markets, which sold everything from fresh cherries to books to religious icons. 8 hours later and I felt I had seen most of the city. After a feast of roasted garlic potatoes and Bulgarian wine I boarded the night train for Istanbul. It was time to go East.

Thursday, June 04, 2009


I decided to concentrate my visit to Spain on two regions: the northern Basque country and Madrid.

I was interested in checking out the north for both its beauty and its people. Home to the Basque people, a unique ethnic group which inhabit part of France and Spain. Interestingly, the Basque possess the last surviving pre-Indo European language in Europe ( ) , and are still fighting for greater self determination and, in some cases, a separate state. The name is commonly associated with ETA, the Marxist-Leninist paramilitary group responsible for much of the organised political violence in Spain.

San Sebastian
I put aside museums and tourist sites for awhile and went in search of good food and and stunning beaches in San Sebastian, on Spain's Atlantic coast. I arrived by train from France in the evening, dropped my increasingly burdensome backpack at a hostel, and headed to the Old Town in search of a culinary adventure. At the heart of the Spanish Basque country, it claims to have the best pinxtos (tapas) in Spain. The food really is an art form. Wandering around the historical part of the city, pub after pub serves a stunning array of colorful, tasty morsels, using gourmet smoked hams, fresh seafood, pickles and vegetables from long wooden bars. From around lunchtime to late into the evening you can stand by the bar, serviette in hand, sampling as you wish.

Apart from the food, San Sebastian's beaches are long, pretty and wild and seem to have become a big draw card for bleached haired Australian surfers who flock here for the good waves, cheap beer and decent nightlife. And despite the 'mild' (i.e. rainy, cool) climate, the atmosphere of San Sebastian more than makes up for its weather. It's the kind of place you don't want to leave.

Perhaps it was my lack of map or tourist guide to point me to all the good things about Bilbao, but this largely grey and industrial looking city, situated an hour from San Sebastian, didn't have too much to offer than its Guggenheim museum which houses some spectacular modern art in a very unique building. It's worth visiting just for the museum.

I couldn't let a trip to the North end without a trip to Pamplona, the town made famous by Ernest Hemingway's novel, Fiesta. There are still several restaurants named after the writer, and its easy to imagine him wandering around the town, wine skin in hand, ready for a fiesta. It really is a gorgeous town, and quintessentially 'Spanish', if not made more so by the hordes of backpackers who flock to the town each year to get mindlessly drunk and sleep in the town's parks for the duration of the Running of the Bulls Festival. I was glad to miss it, and instead enjoyed wandering the streets of the old town.

From San Sebastian I took a 6 hour bus journey to Madrid. Great weather, good friends and cheap flights east attracted me to the Spanish capital and if anything it was better than I imagined. The second leafiest city in the world, Madrid's trees are a welcome haven from the heat. Often reaching into the mid 40 degrees Celsius in summer, I was delighted to finally feel some real heat on my skin after a year of Irish weather. Some of the main tourist highlights:
-Reina Sofia Museum- Madrid's GIANT modern art museum, boasting thousands of works including Dali, Picasso and Francis Bacon. It's also home to Picasso's Guernica.
-Housing an equally impressive collection of older art including Michelangelo. My favourite was the Sleeping Beauty.
-El Museo de Jamon- Madrid's museums of ham deserve an honorable mention. Not really museums, they offer a colossal array of smoked hams and cheeses, all of which can be consumed on site or taken away.

However, the real heartbeat of Madrid is heard at nighttime, when the whole city comes alive. From about 11pm onwards until sunrise, the streets are packed with partygoers, in search of a tasty meal, music, dancing or pubs which cater to almost any preference.

I left tired, tanned and full of world class food!