Imagine it’s your birthday, a beautiful gift has been bought for you, but when presented your package it’s wrapped in tatty old newspaper, you hesitantly untie the threadbare string holding it together, tear away the sticky tape and gingerly open up the folds of paper holding your breath.
Inside lies a pearly white silky ballerina’s tutu, with layers of bouncy tulle in every colour of the rainbow. Let me introduce you to Sofia – she met us wearing her beggars coat but transformed into a ballerina.

We stagger off the bus wobbly knee’d and green around the gills after several hours of swaying. The last remaining passengers scurry off leaving us in their dust trying to get our bearings. This is a dump. Where had we landed? As always, staff at bus terminals are employed to pose as dormant crocodiles, leaving travellers to fend for themselves without assistance, so without guidance we make our way towards the road that brought us into the city.

Turning the corner behind the station runs a looooong street flowing out in front of us, lined with mainly double or triple storey buildings, down a steadily sloping hill to what could be central Sofia approximately 7km ahead? Cigarette butts and litter fill the drains and smother the narrow tarred pavement. Cars park half on the pedestrian pavement and half on the road, making navigating with a suitcase on wheels frustrating. Everything is higgledy piggledy, dirty bay windowed shops open into the walkway ready to snatch ones sleeves, baskets of produce line the space between car wheels and the pavement and elderly raggedy folk bearing broken teeth and broad smiles tend to buyers. Signposts and street lamps have no map either – they jump out every which way – each with bicycles tethered to them. Damp rises from the ground and plasterwork has long ago peeled off, plants escape from the brickwork and laundry hangs above us . The street is a cacophony of traffic, music and people gaggling. WHAT HAVE WE DONE? Could this really be (“you’ll love Sofia”) Sofia – the capital of Bulgaria?

ALL THE STREET SIGNS WRITTEN IN CYRILLIC – AND OUR MAP ENGLISH

Time is marching, after 4pm now, and we begin to worry about finding our Apartment. Yes, I’ve told you how fantastic Booking.com is – one selects a place, a personal email from the owner soon follows with phone numbers, accommodation details plus maps for driving or walking. One problem, wi-fi is needed to communicate if lost. As we cross borders every few days, how would we work with a sim card and phone? In Eastern Europe wi-fi is not readily available at every cafe nor at stations – the bus crocodiles wouldn’t tell us if it did anyway. We realise we’ve more chance of winning the Euro Lotto than finding our place to sleep tonight– because everything is written in Cyrillic script – no English anywhere. Flipping a coin we say tails we aim straight, heads we …….. suppose straight.

Route from Istanbul to Sofia
Route we took by bus from Istanbul, across the border into Sofia

5pm, the crowds are cheek by jowl’ing (yes), for their tiny walking space. We are lost amongst this colony of ants, being swept away down the hill. Every hotel we pass, we pop into hoping to find a vacant room available. Not a single space anywhere. Suddenly the crowds disperse, we happen upon a grand paved pedestrian-only boulevard, pot plants spilling over with flowers, wine bars on platforms, violinists entertaining on fountain walls and guitar players busking under trees and – joy of joys – Ice Cream Shops scattered far and wide. There, before our eyes is the glamorous Queen of the moment – Hilton Sofia. A mere glance at one another, we nod and make for the welcome mat that probably cost more than our air tickets combined. Shaking their heads at these 2 bedraggled orphans they say they’re booked to capacity (we’re actually nearly relieved – re-mortgaging our house for a night at the Hilton – not a cool thought)….. every hotel in the city is full for 3 days ahead.

WHY HAVE WE NOT BOOKED AHEAD? – QUESTIONS THE RECEPTIONIST ?

Well, we have, and show her the reservation. As we unwrap our confusion about street names being in Cyrillic alphabet and the map English, she grasps the problem. Bless this tiny efficient lady, she grabs her phone – calls the owner of the apartment, explains our demise and asks him to hold our bed. Now 6.10 pm, we have until 6.30pm to arrive as the owner is leaving town thereafter. Armed with directions in hand, smiles on our faces, we set off fast, the clock is ticking. She’d told us “just 10 minutes away from this Hotel”. Ho Hum! – not clarifying BY TAXI! 6.25 pm running is the new walk, stitches poke into our sides and wheezing lungs protesting, matching letters on signs to the letters on our hand drawn directions. We sprint through subways, snatch up our speed wobbling suitcases, pass building construction sites, one minute losing our sense of humour followed by whoops of laughter at the ridiculousness of this situation the next. Why is a crisis so amusing sometimes? Kinda like laughing when tickled but it is not funny at all! No People to ask about the cul de sacs and closed down streets – the area is deserted, no shops, no restaurants, only grey dingy communist-looking blocks of flats and unfriendly buildings, lines of dust bins and overloaded skips everywhere.

A car zooms past on the empty motorway beside us, slams on brakes and at high speed, in wining reverse gear, wiggles back towards us and a brightly dressed waving man jumps onto the pavement. His car is as flashy as his smile and he is a hugger, wonderful – our landlord, what an awesome welcome by Mr Booking.com Sofia. He chauffeurs us a few metres down ‘Bla-bla-Fishcake Road’ to our nest for a few days, we blindly feel our way up the stairs in darkness, he unlocks the apartment and VOILA – peaceful puffs of perfumed white linen and cream embossed wallpaper greet us, silvery silky curtains dance in the breeze drifting off our private balcony and the kettle is boiling for a cuppa tea …………..

Have you changed your minds yet, come and travel with us next time wo adventure somewhere 🙂

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