Sorry for the long gap between updates! As many of you know, I met up with family in the Netherlands and spent a week together with them. The driving purpose for this was a ceremony at the American Military Cemetery in Margraten, Netherlands, where my grandfather is buried. My father spoke at the ceremony, and we were able to meet the Dutch family that has adopted my grandfather’s grave. You can read about it in this (front page!) article in the Washington Post. I will post a longer, more detailed post later on, but it was an incredibly moving experience that I’m grateful I was able to be a part of.
How, you might ask, did I decide to visit Sofia, Bulgaria? The answer is…I don’t really remember. I think when I was doing my initial research a long time ago, I heard about it and it sounded interesting, and stuck in my head until I finally got around to making my plans. So no good story. Sorry! It did turn out to be a very interesting place, and I’m glad that I visited.
My first day, I joined a free walking tour of the city. This is a program run by a non-profit group, funded by the government. Attendees can make donations, but there’s no obligation to. It was really great – the tour guide clearly knew her stuff, and was passionate about showing off her home (although she was from a small village elsewhere in Bulgaria). There is the basic walking tour, which I was on; the Communist tour, which shows off former sites from that era; and the culture tour, which in addition to some historical sites shows off some every day life, has food sampling, etc. Had I stayed longer I would have gone on the culture tour at least, but it’s only a couple of days a week for the moment. If you’re ever there, I highly recommend joining.
We walked around for just over two hours, and saw government buildings, churches, some historical ruins, and more. We also learned about the history of Bulgaria. I’ll confess to basically not knowing anything prior to my visit, but it was actually quite fascinating. People have been living in that part of the world for 6,000 years! Sofia was at one point considered as the capital for the Eastern Roman Empire. They were part of the Soviet Union sphere of influence following World War II, but have adopted Western culture rapidly and are doing their best to improve their way of life. During WW2, they reluctantly joined the Axis powers, but didn’t participate militarily on any significant level. In 1943, the king of Bulgaria was summoned to Berlin and forced to sign an order sending all the Bulgarian Jews to concentration camps after refusing for a lengthy time. He died shortly after returning to Bulgaria, apparently of poison, and one of his last acts was to tear up the order sending the Jews away. All of the Bulgarian Jews were saved. There is a famous Square of Tolerance with a Orthodox church, a Catholic cathedral, a temple, and a mosque on the different corners, and so far as our guide knew there has never been a hateful act against any of them. The Bulgarians are rightfully very proud of this history.
After wandering the city with the tour, I had lunch with some other folks and the guide. The local food was…not exciting. It was fine, just boring. I wandered the city with some folks, had some dinner, and took some night photos (they weren’t great). The next day, I joined a guided tour to the Rila Monastery, which is (or was, depending on who you ask) the largest monastery in Eastern Europe. It’s in a beautiful location, with lots of forest and mountains in the background. I was a little underwhelmed by the monastery; it’s pretty, but after 20 minutes of wandering I was ready to go. I was also very frustrated by the fact that you weren’t allowed to photograph inside any of the churches anywhere. I originally thought it was for religious reasons, which was okay, but then our tour guide basically said “They want you to buy postcards”. Boo. I did not buy a postcard.
The next day I wandered the city, randomly walked through a street market, and bought some extra socks. It’s harder to do laundry in Europe than anywhere else I’ve been! I imagine the hostels have washing machines, but I’m now trying to use up all of my hotel points and save cash. Hotel laundry is 8 eur for a pair of pants, so I’ll wash my own clothes in the sink, thank you very much. More wandering, some souvenir shopping, and a few last photos before packing up for my flight. Sofia was really a lot of fun – a great tour of the city, and a fun city to be in. It wasn’t very crowded (at least not that I felt) but there was a good energy to it.