#5 Last stop in Europe: Bulgaria

After a week in Belgrade, it’s time to head towards Sofia, capital of Bulgaria. The hardest thing about hitchhiking is always getting out of large cities. Once you’re on the highway, most cars cover long distances and it’s fairly easy to get a ride for a few hundred kilometres. Leaving Belgrade is no exception to the rule. It takes me over two hours to reach the first gas station on the highway, but then I quickly find a car willing to take me all the way to Sofia, 400 kilometres further.

My drivers are a Bulgarian couple in their fifties from a small town near Sofia. They’re happy to take me to Sofia but they don’t want to cross the border with me, probably fearing I might try to smuggle some illegal goods into the country. That’s fair enough, we hardly know one another after all. They drop me off near the border and we agree to meet at the first gas station after the checkpoint.

Yet there is a misunderstanding. I walk past a first gas station, barely pay attention to it as it is out of order, go to the next one that is in service and start waiting for them there. I wait nearly one hour and a half and end up coming to the conclusion that they have left without me. Disappointed, I walk along the road with a sign saying SOFIA. It’s getting dark and I’m losing hope, until one car slows down and pulls over. Right away I recognise Dimi and Zhenko her husband! I am delighted, I get in the car they tell me they waited one hour and a half for me at the first gas station, the closed one where I didn’t stop… Nevermind, I am relieved that I don’t have to pitch my tent tonight. They drop me off in the city center and I can go to a hostel. I booked a bed for eight nights as I need a delivery address for the gear that I had to buy again after getting robbed in Slovenia.

Entering Bulgaria amounts to a brief come back into the European Union and thus a slight increase in consumer prices due to the phenomenom of uniformisation within the single market.

Orthodox christians are the majority although less significantly than in Serbia. Sofia is home to the Alexander Nevski cathedral, one of the largest of the Balkan Peninsula. It seems to be roughly the same size as the Saint-Sava cathedral in Belgrade, but turns out to be all the more splendid with its golden domes and countless ornamentations.

In Bulgaria, the cyrillic alphabet is the only one used. Impossible to fall back on bilingual signs like in Serbia, so I go about memorising the different symbols. The couple who dropped me off in Sofia gave me a map of Bulgaria where the cities are written in cyrillic. I compare them with the names in latin on the map of my phone to learn the different sounds. After about 10 days in Bulgaria, I think I can decipher nearly half of the 30 letters that make up the cyrillic alphabet.

Sofia is a pleasant, clean and quiet capital city. Surprisingly quiet actually. Some neighbourhoods look almost empty, even on a saturday afternoon! Kristian, a guy working in the hostel, tells me that many locals escape the capital and its tremendous heat during the summer to enjoy the coast of the Black Sea and its cooler climate.

A cultural peculiarity in Bulgaria is that people nod their head up and down to say “no” and from left to right to say “yes”. How confusing!

I am delighted to have a new camera and can take up one of my favourite hobbies again: shooting street photography, roaming the streets of the Bulgarian capital chasing fleeting moments of beauty.

The week in Sofia has been full of encounters, both with other travellers and locals. I was first thinking of heading straight to Istanbul after Sofia but several people have recommended I should make a stop in Plovdiv, the second biggest city of the country. I easily find someone who is happy to take me there. My driver is a true local celebrity, she won the Bulgarian version of the X-factor singing contest, how unlikely! A two-day stop is necessary to explore the old town. Indeed Plovdiv is worth checking out. The city has a wealth of historical and architectural wonders to offer. You can find numerous archeological sites and above all the very well preserved remains of an old Roman theatre from the 2nd century of our era. On top of this all, Thracian, Bulgarian and Ottoman buildings give the city a unique character, diverse and yet harmonious.

Ten days in Bulgaria and definitely not enough. But for now, I’m getting ready for Turkey. I can’t wait to be in Istanbul where I found a job in a hostel. Last stop before the Eurasian megalopolis, I’m staying for two nights in Edirne, a small border town near Bulgaria and Greece that once was capital of the Ottoman Empire.

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