Prior to making my decision to leave work and take off travelling I’d arranged to go on two long weekend city breaks to two Eastern European capital cities, Bucharest and Sofia. So, I thought I’d use these trips to try and experiment with writing a proper travel blog full of handy hints, tips and some funny stories in readiness for when my adventure started in January 2020.
Turns out there were a few issues with this fool proof plan. Firstly, neither trip turned out to be that cultural, in large part down to the amount of socialising and catching up that was done (AKA, beer was so cheap we drank loads). Secondly, I got back from these trips at the end of November which coincided with various birthdays (including my own), Christmas and most importantly the mad rush to try and get everything done before my final day at work on 20th December. The time for blog writing was limited and even when I did have some time the words wouldn’t come. I’m really not sure why, thoughts just did not materialise on the page. Anyway, nearly two months have passed and I’ve now left (post to follow on this). Thankfully a change of scenery has helped and the words have come whilst I’ve been in Abu Dhabi staying with my fantastic family and now finished off in Queenstown, New Zealand. So here it is, my first “travel blog”, let me know your thoughts, if you have any!
I’ve not really ventured to any of Eastern Europe before. It is an area of Europe which has been missing from my travels and so when the idea of Bucharest (the Romanian capital) was floated in the group chat I was all in. It needs to be said at an early stage of this blog post, this was not a particularly cultural trip. Unless you consider drinking copious amounts of Romanian beer in a number of bars cultural…and as a matter of fact, I do.
Before jumping in with the Bucharest part of this blog I need to do a quick straw poll. Is it just me that didn’t think people clapping on planes when the plane landed was an actual thing? I just assumed it was a joke and that nobody would actually be sad enough to do that. I’ve never experienced this phenomenon before and quite frankly I think it is totally bizarre. I mean without over simplifying things, it’s the equivalent of me receiving a round of applause after completing a work phone call – they’re doing their job! If it was a particularly traumatic landing then I’d concede it may be warranted but in this scenario I don’t think the flight could have been smoother.
Rant over, I promise. One particular high-spot of this trip occurred before we’d even taken to the skies. Over a Wetherspoons breakfast in the terminal at Birmingham airport we very adultly discussed how we should deal with buying food for the group and agreed a kitty was a sensible approach. Less sensibly we immediately decided to put half the kitty on an accumulator bet on a series of international football matches. A cracking decision considering the bet won and we each pretty much covered the whole weekends expenditure in one fell swoop. RESULT.
Once we arrived in Bucharest we set about exploring what the city had to offer. As it currently stands Bucharest is highly unlikely to win any awards for its architecture, cleanliness or beauty. The city is pretty shabby and is largely one big concrete jungle, no longer the “Paris of the East” that the city gained a reputation for being between the World Wars. The wholesale and aggressive redevelopment of the city by former communist leader Nicolae Ceauşescu throughout the 1980s has certainly left an indelible mark on the city.
What it lacks in beauty it certainly makes up for in nightlife. The ‘Old Town’ (also called Lipscani after the main street that crosses the area) is particularly buzzing and would likely be considered the city’s go-to area for nightlife. I use inverted commas as the Old Town is altogether not that old. Although not affected by the bombs of WW2 or the communist regime of Ceauşescu a massive regeneration project has taken place in this area recently and the gradual change in the cityscape is noticeable. Don’t get me wrong the area is largely still pretty rundown but change is definitely coming – watch this space.
We rather stumbled upon the Old Town as we wandered aimlessly from our Airbnb in the direction of the sounds we could hear. We certainly did not take the most direct route to the Old Town, pretty much walking three sides of a square to get to the outskirts of the area. Being creatures of habit we continued to walk the same ‘wrong way’ route every time we walked to the Old Town. As we’d arrived on a Saturday we realised that it was highly likely that our best chances of a night out were that evening and so over dinner we set about finding a good place to go. Following a bit of research we discovered that Scottish DJ Jackmaster was playing at Kristal Club that evening and so decided to go. After a slightly sketchy walk to the venue and difficulties in finding the front door we eventually made our way in. As part of writing this blog I’ve since looked up Kristal and learnt its actually regarded as one of the best venues in Romania and indeed Southeast Europe and is consistently ranked in DJ magazines Top 100 clubs in Europe. Who knew!?
Throughout our time in Bucharest we used Lime Scooters to get us around the city. Although relatively new to Bucharest (introduced in June 2019), Lime is not a new company and a number of us had used them in other places around the world. There are a number of great things about Lime scooters generally, but more specifically to Bucharest; they are cheap, starting cost is roughly the equivalent of 0.62 euros and then a further 0.12 euros for each minute you use them. It is therefore hard to incur any great cost. As they are new to the city there are many scooters available and there is nearly one on every street you walk down. They are also so much fun, getting up to speeds between 22-27km per hour. More generally Limes are fantastic because you can leave the scooters wherever you want; there is no designated docking point, there are no time restrictions and the app is really easy to use (on the proviso that you have mobile data available!). Finally once you have an account you can use them in any country in which Lime operates, I’ve since used the scooters again in Abu Dhabi to great success. That’s the theory behind it. However in practice using these scooters in Bucharest is not for the faint hearted. The cobbled streets, mad drivers and huge number of pedestrians make the experience a recipe for disaster. More than half our group fell off at some point, including me. RIP Joe’s trainers.
If I had to summarise my trip to Bucharest I would use one word, BEER. Beer in Bucharest is cheap and tastes fantastic. If this sounds like music to your ears Bucharest is the city for you. One handy hint I would suggest is try to avoid travel during rush hour. The roads in Bucharest are notorious for being over crowded and our travel to the airport to catch our return flight was pretty hairy as there doesn’t appear to be any rules on the road. So if you’re of a nervous disposition when driving or a passenger in a car, this may not be the city for you.
Turns out, it’s not just flights to Romania where the whole plane erupts in to a spontaneous round of applause, as my flight to Sofia was exactly the same. I’m still confused by this and would now like to put it on record that I expect a round of applause whenever I complete a task I am being paid for, though that might not be a problem for a while… Anyway as usual I’ve digressed.
The second part of my long weekend double header was a trip to Sofia with some of my SUACCC (Southampton University Athletics & Cross Country Club – a mouthful I know) friends. A few of them had managed to get away together to Krakow earlier in 2019, unfortunately I was unable to attend as I was seeing the mighty Wolverhampton Wanders secure an unlikely point away from home at Stamford Bridge. It would have been 3 if it weren’t for a last minute Eden Hazard equaliser, although that scoreline would have been more than flattering to Wolves considering the stats tell me we only managed 24% possession and one shot on goal.
From a personal perceptive, this trip was always going to be amazing as it had been way too long since I had seen anyone from SUACCC and so it was nice to see everyone and catch up with what was going on in all their lives. I must confess I was extremely bad at keeping up with people in 2019, the school report would read must do better. I promise I am trying and in 2020 (well maybe 2021 once I am actually back in the country) I’ll do better.
Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria and is situated in the foothills of Vitosha Mountain on the western side of the country. Vitosha climbs to a peak of more than 2,200 metres and is the backdrop to Sofia’s southwestern suburbs. In November (the time of our visit), supposedly the easiest way to access the mountain is via Aleko, the mountain’s ski resort. There is a gondola on the outskirts of the city (the Simeonovo Gondola) which will take you all the way to Aleko, a journey which should take roughly half an hour. Once at Aleko you can join one of the trails up Vitosha.
In theory a fantastic way to spend the day, for us however it was more afternoon by the time we’d got our act together and recovered from the previous nights antics in Poison – details to follow below. However the theory is sometimes not one which can be put in to practice. As our taxi approached the bottom of the ski lift it became apparent that it was not running. After a brief consultation from one taxi to the other (the 6 of us were split in to 3’s across two taxis) we agreed to let the taxi drivers take us up to Aleko, roughly a one hour drive.
There are three take homes from this experience. Firstly, a more than 1 hour taxi drive in Bulgaria costs nexts to nothing – around £15 to be precise, which when split between three is incredible. Secondly, I use the words ‘taxi drive’ loosely. This journey can only accurately be described as a rally car experience. The second we hit the incline of the mountain roads, it felt more like I was playing one of the Colin McRae rally games from the early noughties than sitting in the back of a taxi. The speed at which our driver blindly took the corners under the cover of the clouds was something else and was worth every penny of the equivalent of the £5 I paid.
Upon reaching Aleko the walk to Vitosha’s Peak is simply stunning. You don’t need to get anywhere near the top to see some fantastic views of Sofia and there are some fantastic photo opportunities the whole way. Provided your phone doesn’t freeze like mine and block you from taking any photos as its too cold. I did manage to get a few though.
The peak is part of a large plateau, which seemingly goes on forever due in part to its shallow gradient. Due to our tardy start we didn’t quite make it to the peak as darkness was beginning to fall. At a push we might have made it to the very top and back to Aleko prior to sundown, however our decision to turn round proved to be a stroke of genius and provides the third take home. Always check the return bus times. Our taxi drivers had kindly informed us that a free bus would be able to take us back down to the foot of Vitosha (where we could order a taxi to take us back to our apartment) once we had finished our walk. What we all failed to do was check what time the buses ran until and what time we needed to be back. Fortuitously as we casually strolled down the final track of the mountain we spotted, what we later learnt was the last bus back to Sofia, at the top of the gondola station. A lucky escape.
I can’t lie our adventure to Vitosha was about as cultural as the weekend got. Unless you count karaoke as cultural? We arrived fairly late in the day on our first day (Thursday) and went in search of somewhere to eat and something to do that evening. I can only speak for me but my expectations for the night weren’t too high, it was after all a Thursday. We lucked out with our choice of food venue – Ale House. I might well be uncultured but this was my first experience of a restaurant where you can pour your own pints of the house beer straight to your glass from your own personal beer tap at the table. Frankly I was in heaven and what made it even better was the beer itself. Ale House refers to their beer from the taps at the table as “live” beer. Live beer is a beer which has been bottled or served without any additional processing for expiration date extension purposes and seeks to ensure the preservation of the healthy substances contained in natural hops and malt. Ale House has its own huge fermentation tanks on the premises for its live beer and the taste really benefits as a result. It not only tastes great but it is relatively cheap as well. The tap at your table records in litres the amount of beer you drink and when charged at 8.88 Bulgarian Lev a litre (roughly £3.90 for a bit under 2 pints) you’re doing pretty well. On top of this the food was excellent as well containing a good mix of local/national specialities along with more familiar dishes, making it the perfect place to eat.
Following on from our fantastic experience in Ale House and by now slightly lubricated by some “live” beer we made our way back towards our Airbnb, planning to get up for an early(ish) morning run around the city. As we got to within 50 metres of our front door we stumbled upon Poison, described as a piano bar it was running a karaoke evening advertised to run until 5am and by this point it seemed a good idea to go and try it. I can’t say the place was buzzing (there was only one other group numbering no more than 5) who quickly left once we broke in to song. I like to think this was no reflection on my performance of either Torn by Natalie Imbruglia or Islands in the Stream by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, both in duet with one of the others. Despite us being the only people in the place they kept it open and were more than happy for us to badly sing the night away. I’m fairly certain some videos were taken, however thankfully I am yet to see the evidence and I sincerely hope that it stays that way. I can’t however say that our follow up visit later in the weekend was as successful. On a busy Saturday the live band is in full swing from 11pm onwards and what is not advertised is the hidden entry fee you incur by coming in and sitting down, it only appears as a nasty surprise later on your drinks tab. Still, nothing will detract from the excellence of our personal karaoke session.
I must confess that I was more than pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food in Sofia. If I was to compare the cuisine to anything I would suggest that it was similar to its neighbouring countries of Greece and Turkey but with a bit of a twist. Before going to Bulgaria I was told I must try a Shopska Salad, reasoning as it is Bulgaria’s most famous dish. Similar to a Greek salad although served with a Bulgarian cheese sirene rather than feta I was under the impression that this was a longstanding traditional Bulgarian dish. However, I’ve since learnt it is really not that traditional and was actually the invention of a state tourism company during the Communist era of the 1950s designed to increase patriotism. Supposedly the ingredients were chosen to represent the colours of the Bulgarian flag (being green, white and red) and not specifically for their taste. I can however confirm that regardless of how they were put together it does taste fantastic and has obviously stood the test of time despite the downfall of communism in Bulgaria in the very early 1990s.
If I had to give a top tip for Sofia it would be this. Do not trust any old taxi. As we experienced, and through subsequent research I’ve discovered Sofia is well known for having a lot of scammer taxis drivers We picked our two taxis up from directly outside the airport and told both drivers exactly the same information. One driver dropped half of us directly outside our apartment for 50% less than the cost of the taxi I was in, which dropped us a good 5 minute walk from our location. To top it off he gave us the completely wrong instructions of where to walk once we got out. We quickly noticed that he had kicked us out early as he wanted to pick up the local lady who was trying to hail him down the street. In hindsight the telling off we received for “talking too much” in the taxi should have been an indication that the driver was on the dodgy side of dodgy. It was an odd experience being told to be silent by a taxi driver, only to then have the silence broken by him bemoaning the number of British, French and German patrons of the local McDonalds. Apparently Bulgarians don’t eat McDonalds, something I find rather hard to believe. After this experience we utilised the concierge desk of the local chain hotel down the road who told us that Yellow! was a reputable taxi company which had an app (akin to Uber) you could use to order a taxi from your phone. This piece of advice was incredibly useful and would definitely be my top tip should you visit Sofia.
If you were looking for an informative travel blog in relation to Bucharest and Sofia full of hints and tips of things to do this was probably not the blog post for you. I must confess neither trip was particularly cultural but what I would say is this, I would return to Sofia in a heartbeat. I think there is plenty more to be explored and the variety and quality of the food on offer is up there with any other European capital city I have visited. Bucharest on the other hand, although I enjoyed the trip, that was down to the company and the amount of beer drank not the city itself. Although we only scratched the surface, that was enough and I am not sure what more it really had to offer. The preconception of the city I had was that it was a seedy stag do destination and that didn’t change after visiting.
Songs Sound Tracking My Life Right Now
Justin Bieber – Yummy
Billie Eilish – everything i wanted
The Weeknd – Blinding Lights
Stormzy (feat. Headie One) – Audacity
Things I’m Netflixing or Watching
You – Season 2
Don’t F***With Cats